Downsizing Is Killing Us - how can we stop demoralising the people who are still here?


There's no getting around it, sometimes organisations have to let people go to cut costs. If you're focused on the right things then you will have tried everything else first but that doesn't make it any easier for the people concerned. Even more important to the future of the organisation - what about the people who are left? Even when it becomes clear that they are safe you're essentially asking them to not only carry on doing a good job but in effect to work even harder, now that there's less people to do the work, despite the fact that they may well be seriously demoralised and under-motivated. 

This collapse in morale amongst those staff who are retained not only affects productivity directly but often means there is an exodus amongst the remaining staff, particularly the most talented, as was found by Charlie Trevor and Anthony Nyberg of the Wisconsin School of Business[1], even if the redundancy programme had been carefully designed to avoid that.

There are two ways the remaining staff can be seriously unsettled:

  • Personal bitterness: Many of the people remaining will be friends of those let go and if they feel that their friends were treated shabbily during the process they will resent it.
  • Survivor guilt: When it becomes apparent that they have survived the redundancy round feelings of guilt, similar to those that survivors of natural disasters often report, can easily surface.  As well being a general problem this may make it seem disloyal to them to embrace or engage with any organisational changes made during the redundancies.


You can minimise the fallout from downsizing by doing it appreciatively - 3 essential steps   

Here's what you need to do to prevent your remaining staff feeling traumatised by the whole experience. Basically it can be summed up by saying that if you treat those leaving well, and not as an embarrassment, it will make those staying a lot less guilty and resentful of the organisation as a whole and you personally:

  1. Treat the people leaving as individuals -  Organise practical support, whether its ‘how to adjust to retirement’, to ‘how to work your network’, for those leaving and negotiate individual leaving packages that meet their needs e.g. some might want to keep the car for a month to help with appearances and confidence at interviews, while others, keen to launch their business idea or take up their hobby might want everything converted to cash.
  2. Be sorry, not ashamed: Be crystal clear why the organisation has to let people go. Remember that just because you have to do something someone might be experiencing as a bad thing doesn’t make you a bad person. You are not the sole architect of their fate. Don’t avoid people; seek them out so you can tell them personally how sorry you are that it has come to this. If appropriate let them know that you personally are happy to write them letters of recommendation and that when things pick up you would be very happy to offer them employment if they are still around, but sadly, for now, to save the organisation for the future, you have had to make some very hard decisions.
  3. Honour them - This might be hard for you, given what you've just done to these people, and you might be afraid that they will throw the offer back in your face but it is essential. Hiding in your office or making sure you're in meetings on people's last days will rightly be seen as cowardice and a final, unnecessary slight. You need some sort of ceremony for departing staff. This should include:
  • Making sure friends and colleagues from the organisation can attend, maybe invite (or suggest the leaving employee invite) their family.
  • Having someone honour each departing individual. Make sure it's someone who can speak with genuine appreciation of what they have brought to the organisation. This might well be a work-mate rather than senior management. Someone who can say from a state of knowledge how sorry they are to see this person go.
  • Putting up a talking wall, in a public place, of the achievements of those who are leaving. The technology can range from video clips or interviews with colleagues, to flip-chart paper and post it notes. Depending on your industry and their specialism you might include accounts won, innovations developed, sporting teams led, social relationships fostered, talent nurtured and so on. Invite people to add their own messages of sorrow, support, and reminiscence.


[1] Trevor, C. and Nyberg, A., 2009. ‘Keeping your headcount when all about you are loosing theirs’, Academy of Management Journal. Available at:


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