Mind of the Manager

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An Open Letter to Anyone Ever Laid Off

I have a simple message: Say goodbye to the guilt.

To anyone who’s been laid off in the last decade or so:

I have a simple message comprised of five words that I hope may be of a little solace: Say goodbye to the guilt. It will never help you, and dollars to doughnuts you didn’t deserve it in the first place.

Being laid off is hard enough in terms of the economic and emotional consequences without the added weight of secretly feeling: I deserved this. I wasn’t really a good performer and after all these years they finally caught up with me.

To this I say: Forget about that line of thinking. In the vast majority of cases it’s simply not true.

There’s a convenient fiction out there that most layoffs are somehow fully rationally engineered, an organization’s excellent opportunity to effectively “thin the herd” and let go of its weakest performers.

Well, sure, there’s some of that now and then. But if anyone thinks our era’s mega-layoffs – with tens of thousands of people regularly being shown the door – are an orderly rational Sunday walk in the park, that’s, as we used to say when I was growing up in Boston, wicked far from the truth.

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Here’s who an organization loses in a massive layoff: It loses some of its worst performers, it loses some of its best performers, plus a whole lot of solid people who know their business in between.

To inject a little scale, here are a few of the sobering staff reduction numbers since the Great Implosion of 2008. Citigroup – 50,000 (2008); GM – 47,000 (2009); Bank of America/Merrill Lynch – 30,000 (2011); US Postal Service – 30,000 (2010). With doubtless more to come from other ‘players to be named later.’ Hey, I get it. I’m a realist. An organization has to be cost-competitive. If it’s not, ultimately everyone loses. Game over, wealth destroyed, we all go home. But on the other hand neither is slicing – where many of our best management minds are relentlessly trained these days – a viable, forward-thinking, long-term growth strategy. Never was or will be.

As one who’s at times been in the middle of these operations as a former corporate executive, who’s worked directly with the smart lads and lasses at McKinsey and BCG and other ‘rightsizing’ specialists, who’s seen colleagues, family and friends' lives turned upside down (and yes literally lost) in businesses from airlines to education to law to insurance to banking to benefits consulting to you name it, I can safely say, in the midst of Major Layoff Mode, it’s never a purely rational play. It’s a jungle out there. It’s the random chaos of the universe. It’s grinding historic economic forces at work. Decisions often become political or personal. It can be a chance to even old scores. Most of all, at the end of the day it’s every dog for himself.

So if you’ve been caught up in this vortex, do your best not to take it personally.

I say this because the psychological costs of being laid off are so insidious and long lasting. For better or for worse, I talk to people about this topic a lot. These are the kind of things I hear.

“You thought you did a good job, but did you really? Were those performance evaluations really valid? Apparently not, because you got laid off…”

“There are constant reminders – your old drive to work, running into former colleagues at a restaurant. Old colleagues ask, ‘What ARE you doing now?’ Awkwardness ensues. Then over time former colleagues who were friends don’t call anymore. You wonder what the rumor mills are churning out about you at your former employer…”

“You wake up at 2 in the morning, unable to sleep because your reality has changed. You’re now unemployed, a non-contributing member of society, a pariah to the company, a failure. The feeling of failure will fade somewhat, but everywhere you go you’re reminded your world has changed. Every form asks for a ‘Work Number.’ Workplace: Unemployed! The very term strikes fear into the heart of Type A overachievers…”

Multiply these sentiments by millions and it’s a formidable collective weight for a society to bear. It’s a chill headwind against recovery. Darned if I know how to quantify it, but I do know that in a Doldrums Economy this kind of collective psychic anguish isn’t helping us grow.

So to return to my original point, my little Open Letter: The sooner you lose any trace of misdirected guilt, the sooner you as an individual can start to heal and move forward constructively. Update the resume. Look for a new job. Or take a deep breath. Take a break. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Read War and Peace. Spend more time with the kids. Go to a museum or a ballgame. Do whatever you really like to but never had time for. Or work harder than ever at starting your own enterprise. That great American solution can work too.

But whatever you do, don’t take it the wrong way: Say goodbye to the guilt.

It’s not your fault. It never was.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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