Helping Employees After Layoffs: Methods to Motivate Employees to Overcome Survivor’s Guilt

By Susanne Beier, Pam Gordon, and John Sienrukos

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013) reported that in May 2013 alone, more than 1300 organizational layoff actions occurred, impacting almost 128,000 employees. During a layoff or reduction in force (RIF), companies systematically terminate or suspend positions in response to changing business needs. While employees who are laid off experience stress and anxiety from their job loss, employees who survive a layoff experience their own unique symptoms.
This article will help counselors:
1) Understand and recognize the symptoms layoff survivors experience
2) Approach employees who survive a layoff
3) Apply a method to assist and motivate layoff survivors.


Understanding the Signs and Symptoms Surviving Employees May Experience
Employees who survive layoffs experience a variety of strong and sometimes conflicting emotions. For example, layoff survivors may:

  • Be happy to still be employed, yet may be angry because of the extra work load assigned;
  • Feel a sense of guilt as they look at the empty desks once occupied by colleagues and friends, but feel thankful they are still employed;
  • Wonder if there will be another round of layoffs, and who will be terminated next time;
  • Feel unmotivated to work, and hold back from doing their best work.


These are symptoms of survivor’s guilt, first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 when she identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She later applied these stages to people suffering catastrophic personal loss, including loss of freedom, income, and employment.


Approaching Layoff Survivors: Recommendations for Technique and Method

Counselors can follow Chuang’s (2011) recommendations for motivating employees who remain after an organizational layoff: 

  • Keep lines of communication open to reduce uncertainty and minimize the spread of rumors
  • Involve the remaining employees in the decision-making process regarding how to move forward
  • Build trust, as much as possible, in an unstable environment
  • Treat employees as individuals and personalize motivation efforts
  • Create ways to decrease the work overload with the use of technology.

Counselors can also apply the following key counseling techniques and approaches to assist survivor employees:

  • Increase support and understanding and make sure the client possesses the skills to maintain proposed changes and deal with life issues.
  • Include both career and mental health counseling to assist the employee cope with fear, anxiety, depression and, self-doubt resulting from the recent layoffs (Niles and Harris-Bowlsbey, 2009).
  • Incorporate different styles and approaches into counseling, such as a coaching and consulting, to support client success (Mitchell and Krumbolz, 1996).


The DID Model: A Method for Assisting and Motivating Layoff Survivors
Counselors can also use the DID model, developed by Dr. John Sienrukos in 1984, to assist employees with Reduction in Force (RIF) actions and to motivate those left behind who may fear being laid off in the next round. For employees who survived layoffs, the DID model may be used to help employees re-focus to other jobs within the current organization so they can move forward and make themselves indispensable to their current employers.


The DID model can help counselors discover:
1) the Direction the employee wishs to go with his or her career;
2) the Intensity the employee was willing to expend on moving toward that career, and
3) the Duration for which the employee was willing to stay engaged in moving to this new phase in their life.


Questions counselor's may ask that follow the DID model include:
Direction –

  • In looking forward, what type of work interests you (i.e., desk work, giving presentations, travel, preparing reports, hands on, etc.)?
  • Looking forward, how do you feel about staying at your current employer, do you see a future for yourself on your present job?
  • Where do you see yourself in five, ten years?
  • Do you want to work for someone or work independently?

Intensity –

  • What work were you the most passionate about completing?
  • What tasks did you enjoy working on?
  • How much effort are you willing to put into the task to ensure its success?

Duration –

  • What type of work enables you to maintain your attention and focus?
  • What work are you willing to put in the extra time and effort to make sure it is completed successfully?

As companies trim budgets resulting in group layoffs, employees “left behind” often ask themselves the following questions: Is this really over? Is this just the first round? Why am I staying and not them? Contrary to some management expectations about employees working harder after a reduction in force, employees may cut back on their work production and efficiency. They may withdraw from company social activities and regress to a point where they are in danger of being discharged from employment. This is where counselors perform a critical function. Using these methods and techniques, counselors can help layoff survivors to rediscover and reconnect with their own motivation, direction, and goals to become more fully engaged employees.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013, June 21). News release. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/mmls.pdf.

Chuang, Y-S. (2011, December). The interactive of organization climate with the workplace motivation under change commitment for SME. The Journal of Human Resources & Adult Learning, 7(2), 117-126.

Heathfield, S. (2014). How to cope when coworkers lose their job. Retrieved from

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: NY: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone.

Mitchell, L. K., & Krumbolz, J. D. (1996). Krumbolz’s learning theory of career choice and counseling. In D. Brown & L. Brooks (Eds), Career choice and development (3rd ed., pp. 223-280). San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

Niles, S. G., & Harris-Bowlsbey, J. (2009). Career development interventions in the 21st century. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.



Dr. Susanne Beier, is a Licensed Professional Counselor (Pennsylvania & New Jersey), Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Nationally Certified Career Counselor (NCCC). She is a Clinical Member - Forensic Counseling (specialties in Forensic Assessment & Evaluation, Child Custody Evaluation and Youthful Offender Counseling, Civil) and Diplomat -Senior Disability Analyst. She has more than 10 years of teaching experience and currently works for University of Phoenix fostering faculty development. She was featured in NEW WOMAN, Working Woman, SELF and Cosmopolitan magazines for her work with corporate relocation clients (Spouse Career Assistance). Dr. Beier can be reached at susanne.beier@phoenix.edu and sbeier68@yahoo.com

Dr. Pamela Gordon, earned her doctorate in Business Administration with a specialization in Management from Northcentral University. Her three master's degrees are in Human Resource Management; Organization and Leadership; and an MBA with a specialization in Marketing. She has 22 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, with 17 of those years in corporate management/leadership positions. She has more than 10 years of teaching experience and currently works for University of Phoenix fostering faculty development. Her research interests are in the areas of management, organizational behavior, marketing, and human resource management. Dr. Gordon can be reached at  pam.gordon@phoenix.edu.

Dr. John Sienrukos, retired after a career with the Department of the Army as an officer and civilian employee. His last assignment was as the assistant commandant, U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas. He has more than 10 years’ experience teaching at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels at the University of Phoenix, Webster University and Excelsior College. Dr. Sienrukos can be reached at  jsdm46@excite.com.

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1 Comment

Jeff Dillon Ph.D.   on Friday 05/02/2014 at 03:43 PM

Great and vital area of research in our currect situation. You have motivated me to do some research on this topic myself.

Jeff Dillon Ph.D.
Adjunct College Teacher/Career Counselor

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