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The decision to retrench is usually a strategic one, undertaken to reduce inefficiency that accumulate in an organisation over time. The objectives of the retrenchment process are eminent before commencing the process of retrenchment, as well as the expected benefits to the organisation such as:
While the ultimate long-term effectiveness of retrenchments is unclear, there is a definite human impact (Levitt et al., 2008). Retrenchments are intended to reduce costs and promote an efficient, lean and mean organisation, however, what tends to result is an organisation populated by depressed survivors (Noer, 1993, p.13). The next section will focus on the problematic process of retrenchment that contributes to the prevalence of survivor syndrome.
The problematic process of retrenchment
During times of retrenchment, attention is often diverted away from other key issues. Whilst managers must continue to make short-range operational decisions, other long-term commitments may be deferred. Also, as human capital investments do not yield an immediate return on investment (Mello, 2008); this situation may result in decreased investment in human assets (Appelbaum et al., 1997).
A major factor that contributes to the failure of most organisations to achieve their corporate objectives after retrenchment is that they do not satisfactorily and successfully address the "people factor" throughout the process as it pertains to retrenchment survivors. According to Isabella and Koonce (cited in Appelbaum, et al., 1997), lowered employee morale resulted from a number of aspects that were neglected during restructuring. Specifically, organisations failed to keep their employees adequately informed about changes taking place, survivors are usually uninformed or misinformed about many issues, such as their place in the newly structured organisation, expected performance standards, extra work demands and the existence - or lack of - opportunities for career growth, middle-level managers responsible for implementing changes did not receive adequate training for these tasks and corporate goals and performance standards were unclear. These are further compounded by financial and job insecurities.
Hermann (cited in Wiesner et al., 1999) established that employee reactions to retrenchments depend on time pressure dimensions. Two of these elements are "forewarning information" and "clarity". Forewarning information refers to advance notice to the effect that retrenchments will occur and when this will take place. Guiniven (cited in Appelbaum, et al., 1997) points out that when retrenchment is communicated purely in economic terms, this creates serious problems among surviving employees. Clarity is defined as the degree of ambiguity of the information associated with the expected events (Lick cited in Wiesner et al., 1999).
According to Lick (cited in Wiesner et al., 1999), the depth of job cutting might not be the critical factor in survivor syndrome outcomes; rather, critical factor is the frequency of retrenchment. As mentioned in preceding sections, with the South African economy in recession, and the automotive industry showing little or no improvement, the likelihood of further retrenchment is becoming more likely.
In these changing organisations, there are three groups of people: those who will not lose their jobs, those who may lose their jobs and those who will lose their jobs. The first two groups are referred to as "survivors" (Appelbaum et al., 1997). The most obvious human impact is the employees that have been retrenched. These individuals are often known as the victims of retrenchment due to the devastation of job loss (Levitt et al., 2008). The consequences of such retrenchments on the victims are well documented. Recently, research studies have been focussed on the phenomenon of retrenchment survivors: those employees who remain in the organisation after retrenchments have taken place (Barling & Kelloway, 1996).
Until recently the survivors of retrenchment were considered as the fortunate ones, as the general consensus was that the survivors should be grateful to still have a job. More significantly, the belief amongst organisations is that survivors will work harder and more efficiently in order to steer clear of becoming the next victim (Levitt et al., 2008, Noer, 1993).
Managers may expect survivors not only to be appreciative that they were spared and to forgive what happened to their friends, but also to put their feelings aside and work harder. The unspoken "or else" comes across loud and clear (Cianco, 2000 & Appelbaum et al., 1997). However, often any relief felt by survivors is overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions resulting from the retrenchments (Rubach cited in Wiesner et al., 1999).
Employees learn to keep their mouths shut, do not create waves and eventually become passive (Appelbaum et al., 1997).
Cameron (cited in Levitt, et al., 2008) has investigated failures in retrenchment and has condensed his research into two major aspects:
Retrenchment has not been effectively planned, managed, and implemented; and
Retrenchment has caused resentment and resistance in surviving employees.
Poorly managed retrenchment experiences create a new psycho-social problem: "survivor syndrome" (Appelbaum et al. 1997).
the survivor syndrome: aftermath of retrenchment
Response to retrenchment
Next to the death of a relative or friend, there is nothing more traumatic than losing a job, as it disrupts careers and families (Appelbaum et al., 1997). Previous researchers (Newman & Krystofiak, 1993) employed the Kübler-Ross model to describe survivors reactions as comparable to the grieving process that occurs after divorce or the loss of a loved one. In order for organisations to deal with the process effectively it is essential to understand the survivors' response to the change and then adopt appropriate strategies (Joy, 2010).
To this end, the Kübler-Ross Grief cycle will be explored as a means to assist the organisation to identify and frame what the survivors' may be feeling. These phases are not stops on a linear timeline of grief - they are reactions to loss that countless individuals have, but there is not an archetypal reaction to loss as there is no archetypal loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives (Kessler, 2010).
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross research on the different emotional phases of individuals dealing with trauma, terminal illness and death, led to the development of the Kübler-Ross grief framework which details a progression of states by which individuals cope and adapt to change (McGuire & Hutchings, 2007). The five stages of the grief framework, namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, are also transferable to individual transitions and emotional distress resulting from factors other than death and dying (Chapman, 2009). There is a clear similarity between these stages and the stages that individuals experience when dealing with organisational change (McGuire & Hutchings, 2007), such as work redundancy and enforced relocation. The important feature is not that the change is positive or negative, but that it is perceived as a considerably negative event (Straker, 2005).
This framework illustrated figure 3.1 is extended slightly from the original Kübler-Ross model, which does not overtly incorporate the Shock and Testing phases. The extended phases are helpful in understanding and facilitating change (Straker, 2005).
Figure 3.1: Extended Kübler-Ross Grief model
Source: Straker, 2005.
Phase 1: Shock
The initial response to the perceived negative event or announcement is one of classic shock and immobilization. It may seem as if there is no reaction at all to the information. Mentally, the person blocks out the information and the reality and possible implications have not really taken hold yet (Joy, 2010; Straker, 2005).
Phase 2: Denial
Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to acknowledge the information and reality relating to the situation concerned. It is a defence mechanism (Chapman, 2009) and aids individuals to deal with the loss and make endurance possible. Denial, or at least partial denial, is used by almost all individuals after unexpected shocking news - this denial functions as a buffer, allowing the individual to collect themselves, and with the passage of time, assemble other, less radical defences (Kübler-Ross, 1969). Denial helps to pace feelings of grief (Kessler, 2010). In an organisation, individuals may question the relevance, value or suitability of change and later deny that it had any effect on them (McGuire & Hutchings, 2007), becoming fixed in this phase when dealing with distressing change that can be ignored (Chapman, 2009). Thus individuals and groups will passively resist the change (McGuire & Hutchings, 2007).
As an individual acknowledges the reality of the loss, the healing process commences and the denial starts to fade. As an individual progress through this phase all the denied feelings begin to surface (Kessler, 2010).
Phase 3: Anger
The next step after denial is a sudden swing into anger (Straker, 2005), which can manifest in different ways. Individual dealing with emotional distress can be angry with themselves, and / or with others, particularly those close to them (Chapman, 2009). This anger is often accompanied by a tendency to blame others and lash out (Joy, 2010).
Underneath this anger is pain. Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving passing structure to the chaos of loss. When an individual directs their anger towards at someone - in a company this includes the managers, peers, shareholders customers and suppliers -suddenly there is a structure in the form of their anger towards them (Kessler, 2010; Straker, 2005).
In this phase there is no acceptance of the change yet (Joy, 2010).
Phase 4: Bargaining
After the flames of anger have been extinguished, the next phase is a frantic period of bargaining, seeking ways to avoid the perceived negative change realising. People facing distress can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. In organisations, bargaining could include offering to work for reduced remuneration or offering to do alternative work. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution (Straker, 2005; Chapman, 2009).
According to Kessler (2010), guilt is "frequently bargaining's companion. The if onlys cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we think we could have done differently."
Phase 5: Depression
After denial, anger and bargaining, the unavoidability of the change hits home and the individual grudgingly accepts that it is inevitable (Straker, 2005). This is a sort of acceptance with emotional connection. It is normal to experience regret, fear, sadness and uncertainty. Experiencing this phase indicates that the individual has at least begun to accept the reality (Chapman, 2009; Kessler, 2010).
Within the organisation depression may manifest in a several passive behaviours, e.g. declining work performance, extended lunch breaks and physical absenteeism (Straker, 2005). Individuals experiencing this phase oftenÂ lack self-confidence (Joy, 2010).
Phase 6: Testing / Experimentation
In this phase, the individual realises that they cannot stay in depressive despair evermore. They thus start seeking out realistic things that they can do and start to experiment with the new situation and try new things out. As these actions prove effective, at least in some ways, it is found to be preferred to the depression and so the person moves out the dark hole (Joy, 2010; Straker, 2005).
Phase 7: Acceptance
The final phase is back to one of relative steadiness, where the individual is prepared and actively involved in moving on to the next phase of their lives (Straker, 2005). This phase varies according to the individual's circumstances, though it is generally an indication that there is a degree of emotional detachment and objectivity (Chapman 2009). Acceptance characteristically manifests in individuals taking ownership both for themselves and their actions (Straker, 2005).
Acceptance is frequently confused with the concept of being "all right" or "OK" with what has occurred. This is not the case. Acceptance entails recognising that this new reality is the enduring reality. Affected parties may never like the new reality, but eventually it is accepted (Kessler, 2010)
Sticking and cycling
A widespread occurrence with the above cycles is that people get trapped in one phase. An individual may become trapped in denial, never progressing from the point of not accepting the inevitable future. Similarly, an individual may become trapped in enduring anger or recurring bargaining. It is harder to get trapped in active states than in passivity, and becoming trapped in depression is conceivably a more general ailment (Straker, 2005).
Individuals often presume that the transition phases last weeks or months. It is forgotten that the phases are response to emotions that can last for minutes or hours as individuals' cycle between the different phases. Individual stages are not entered and left in a linear manner. Individuals may experience one phase, then another and return to the initial phase (Kessler, 2010; Kübler-Ross, 1969).
Van Tonder (2004) suggests that it is imperative to understand the transition processes that individuals experience in times of major organisational change such as retrenchment and restructuring, as undue emphasis on cost in the financial sense (a primary performance measure generally at managerial levels) drives managerial focus during change initiatives, and it could be argued that this drives managerial focus even more so in times of financial and economic crisis. This focus on cost consequently leads to neglect of the human and social costs of change. Even though these costs ultimately translates into substantial, but indirect, financial costs, the difficulty of delineating and quantifying it, invariably leads to their neglect when assessing the achievement of the organisational change initiative.
Effects of retrenchment on surviving employees
As illustrated in the preceding section retrenchments provoke a variety of psychological states among survivors - these psychological positions have the potential to affect the survivor's work behaviour and attitude, including level of performance, motivation, job satisfaction and commitment. These arguments are based on equity and organisational stress theory (Brockner in Wiesner et al., 1999).
Retrenchment survivors experience a sense of job insecurity. The closer a survivor was to those employees that were retrenched, the greater the levels of job insecurity experienced (Barling & Kelloway, 1996 & Wiesner et al., 1999). Following and during corporate retrenchment, individuals fear the loss of their own livelihood as they see their colleagues lose their jobs. This perception of job insecurity is a classic work stressor with the expectation that continued exposure to job insecurity would result in impaired psychological and physiological health (Barling & Kelloway, 1996).
According to Barling and Kelloway (1996), job insecurity is mainly a result of the perception of a lack of control. This is closely related to the breach of the psychological contract, as this provides an employee with psychological control over their workplace. If employees perceive a direct threat to their jobs and believe that they are powerless to counter this threat, job insecurity is experienced. When an employee perceives that he/she has control over the threat, negative outcomes are avoided. Equally, individuals who see themselves as having only slight control in the workplace are likely to experience adverse psychological and physical consequences (Barling & Kelloway, 1996).
This suggests that increasing employees' perceptions of workplace control will have advantageous effects for both the individual and the organisation. When employees perceive that they can influence the decisions most likely to affect their jobs, negative individual and organisational consequences are likely to be avoided.
Another factor influencing the effects of terminations on survivors is their perceptions of the fairness of the termination decisions and the fairness of the termination/retrenchment process. This would ultimately affect their levels of productivity and the quality of their job performance. In examining the reactions of survivors of retrenchments, Koonce and Greenberg (cited in Appelbaum, et al., 1997) found that surviving employees were more committed to the organisation when they perceived that the retrenched employees were satisfactorily compensated and fairly treated.
Cascio (1993) states that distributing the same amount of work amongst the surviving employees can have long-term impact in terms of the stress experienced. This stress often increases four to six months after the retrenchment, resulting in increased absenteeism and higher turnover (Cascio, 1993; Cianco, 2000). Organisations that "have not adopted a strategic approach to retrenchments will find that valuable institutional knowledge will be lost in the very sectors that are critical to the business's performance. The resulting chaos fuels dissatisfaction as remaining employees experience confusion, stress and burnout as they figure out how to do their predecessors' work." (Deloitte, 2010). These negative outcomes of retrenchment can set off a mass departure among survivors, in some instances creating losses substantially larger than the reduction achieved through the retrenchments. The retrenchment-turnover relationship suggests a paradox in that employees are retrenched by companies that may consequently find them understaffed (Wells, 2008).
Organisations do not fully understand the impact of survivor syndrome, as is evidenced by the lack of support and assistance for survivors. Organisations do understand that the survivors are the people that they will rely on going forward and thus the linchpin of future profitability. Organisations also understand that the survivors must take over the responsibilities of those employees that were let go, yet there seems to be a disconnect between this understanding and how the organisation should best treat and assimilate its survivors and greatest asset (Levitt, et al., 2008).
According to Noer (1993, p.11), employees often follow a norm of denying and blocking survivor syndrome symptoms. This psychological numbing is also commonly found in survivors of other forms of trauma. The chain of denial among retrenchment survivors is difficult to break systematically because it is hierarchical: the higher the employee's rank, the stronger the denial. Denial also seems to be stronger in those who must actively plan and implement retrenchments. These individuals often exhibit a "Judas complex." They engage in extensive rationalisation and explanation to justify workforce reductions.
The effects of retrenchments on managers and implementers will be further explored in the following section.
Effects of retrenchment on managers/implementers
According to Cianco (2000), managers' or implementers, survivor's syndrome reflects a different group of pressures. Their employer loyalty also decreases, but in addition, they feel pressed. Upper management demands results; employees demand organisational fairness.
Most implementers argue that times are changing and employees have to learn to deal with it. This response is part of the psychological denial that shelters implementers from having to look closely at their own role in unsettling others' lives (Levitt et al., 2008). According to Noer (1993, p.6), however, a symptom of survivor syndrome is a hierarchical denial pattern: the higher a person resides, the more they will be invested in denying the symptoms of survivor syndrome. This is one of the reasons that managers are often reluctant to implement intervention strategies, despite the increasing evidence of an epidemic of survivor symptoms.
Implementers also may be unsuccessful in recognising the distress around them. They cannot admit error, even in the face of evidence that their plans are not working. The process itself (in this case, restructuring) takes on a life of its own. Managers put so much time and energy in deciding on and following a course of action that to admit error is very difficult. The objective changes from improving the organisation to mitigating the retrenchment process (Cianco, 2000).
Implementers who remain after retrenchment are working in a different environment and they must become accustomed to this new organisation that is not as friendly as before. They are now managing more people and jobs, and have to work longer hours because their job descriptions and the expected outcomes remain unchanged. Some managers will adapt, but many are not willing to work under these conditions and might decide to leave the company (Wiesner et al., 1999).
It is clear that managers/implementers are not exempt from survivor syndrome as experienced by survivors. According to Noer (1993, p.7), as managers and organisational leaders play a pivotal role in bringing about the emotional release necessary to begin the survivors' post-retrenchment healing process, their denial must be dealt with before there can be any release.
In order to achieve this - and develop an intervention programme - managers and organisational leaders should increase both their cognitive and emotional (head and heart) understanding of retrenchment survivors and survivors syndrome (Noer, 1993, p. 38).
The following sections attempts to illuminate some cognitive issues of survivor syndrome by exploring the root causes of this phenomenon.
Forgotten survivors: the roots of survivor syndrome
The basic bind
According to Cianco (2000), organisational restructuring causes persistent dysfunctional emotions in the survivors-emotions that build when survivors must repress them to continue employment.
Because organisations assist those who leave, but paid no or limited attention to those employees that stayed behind - the survivors - organisation frequently end up with risk-averse, angry, guilty and non-productive employees (Noer, 1993, p.6).
The root cause of survivor syndrome is a profound shift in the psychological employment contract that binds the individual and organisation (Noer, 1993, p.3). This basic bind is illustrated in Figure 3.1 below.
Figure 3.2: The basic bind
Source: Noer, 1993, p.7.
The basic bind is that the process of reducing staff to achieve reduced costs, increased efficiency and productivity often creates conditions that have the opposite result - an organisation that is risk-averse and less productive. The key variable is the survivors' sense of personal violation - the greater the survivors' perception of violation, the greater their susceptibility to survivor syndrome (Noer, 1993, p.6).
From assets to costs: The new view of employees and the psychological employment contract
It has been suggested that one of the reasons for survivor syndrome is due to the breach in the tacit rules that comprises the psychological employment contract between employer and employee. This leads to an increase in stress and a decrease in satisfaction, intentions to stay, commitment and perceptions of an organisation's honesty and trustworthiness (Appelbaum et al, 1997 & Cianco, 2000).
The psychological contract between the employee and the employer includes the assumptions that the employee makes based on his employer's recruitment and subsequent behaviours. Assumptions include reciprocal trust, job security, promotional opportunity, loyalty, fairness, mutual respect and appreciation (Cianco, 2000).
The contract gives employees psychological control over their work environment, which allows employees to generously invest themselves in performing their duties. However, retrenchment introduces unpredictability and loss of control (Cianco, 2000).
Noer (1993, p.16), uses four organisational standards to illustrate this paradigm shift; these standards have old psychological employment contract assumptions on one end and the new psychological employment contract assumptions at the other. These standards and the organisational changes associated with the paradigm shift are illustrated in figure 3.2 below.
Figure 3.3: Organisational paradigm shifts
Source: Noer, 1993, p.17.
Insights into this paradigm shift can be found in:
Organisational assumptions about the purpose of people - from assets to be grown nurtured to costs to be cut
Perhaps the clearest evidence of the paradigm shift is that organisations used to perceive employees as long term-term assets to be nurtured and developed, now see people as short-term costs to be reduced and represents a fundamental shift in the psychological covenant between the organisation and the individual. Today, many organisations view people as things that are but one variable in the production equation, things that can be discarded when the profit and loss numbers do not come out as desired. However, unlike machines, people who are discarded have a significant effect on those who remain within the system (Noer, 1993, p.16-17).
The symbolism of organisational language - from nurturing to violent
Individuals also use symbolism to distance or somehow abstract themselves from the pain and embarrassment of reality. Organisations have produced a number of euphemisms for the act of separating people involuntarily from their jobs. It is easier for implementers to talk about restructuring than termination. Downsizing feels better than workforce reduction, and restructuring has an almost moral ring to it. Organisational leaders' invention of harmless words is a clue to their repressed feelings and a window to their own survivor syndrome (Noer, 1993, p.24; Hirschhorn, 1993).
Organisational time horizons - from long-term career development to short-term job fit and short-term profit orientation
Another indication of the new paradigm is the shrinking time-frame that organisations apply to almost everything. Organisations are reducing cycle time, planning time, budgeting time, travel time, development time and significantly, employee tenure time (Noer, 1993, p.24; Appelbaum, et al., 1997). Employees' long-term careers have become short-term jobs. In the new reality, people are becoming task-specific disposable components of a system that is already short term, and getting shorter (Noer, 1993, p.25).
Organisational preferences - from building up to tearing apart
Once, organisations added components, built themselves up, developed people for the long-term, and the sum was greater than its parts: two and two came out to more than four. This is no longer the case. The new paradigm is reductionistic - the shift is preference from large to small. In human resource terms, the shift is form long-term employee development to short-term employee fit (Noer, 1993, p.25).
Companies that have recently retrenched employees often perform disappointingly because they are often are successful at anticipating and preparing for the employees who are to be released, but they are often not prepared for the decrease in morale and productivity experienced by the survivors of the retrenchment. Furthermore, when the organisation needs its people at their best, they happen to be at their worst (Appelbaum et al., 1997).
Research has shown that feelings that are associated with survivor syndrome include relief, guilt, loneliness, inequity, anger, depression, plummeting morale, destroyed trust, disloyalty towards the company, lowered confidence, job insecurity, and increased absenteeism frequently occurs (Moskal in Wiesner et al., 1999, Guiniven in Levitt et al., 2008). These attitudes, feelings and perceptions are often referred to as survivor syndrome (Collins-Nakai cited in Levitt et al., 2008).
The survivor syndrome
Retrenchment has become an organisational fact of life, and many surveys have confirmed that the survivors are often ignored before, during and after the corporate restructuring. However, it is the survivors that the company will depend upon for future profitability. The employees that lose their jobs during an organisational retrenchment go through an emotionally wrenching experience. Yet their colleagues who remain with the employers have similar reactions.
Survivor syndrome is defined by some human resource professionals as being the "mixed bag of behaviours and emotions often exhibited by remaining employees following an organisational retrenchment (Wiesner et al., 1999).
According to Noer (1993, p.13), the underlying cause of survivor syndrome is a pervasive sense of personal violation, this toxic set of feelings and emotions include:
Sadness, depression and guilt;
Fear, insecurity and uncertainty;
Unfairness, betrayal and distrust;
Frustration, resentment and anger.
This emotional obstruction can impact personal and organisational performance, crippling an organisation at precisely the time it needs to rely on its workforce to build the business and become more efficient (Wells, 2008).
Today's survivors can be tomorrow's disgruntled, unproductive employees or tomorrow's team players, enthusiastic about being part of an organisation that values their contributions. Organisations have under-estimated the detrimental effects of retrenchment and do not take into account the difficulties of motivating a surviving workforce emotionally damaged by watching colleagues lose their jobs. Yet, motivating survivors to achieve greater productivity is essential for company success and employee job security (Appelbaum et al., 1997).
Survivor's syndrome behaviours fall into general moulds. According to Cianco (2000), and Appelbaum et al., 1997), patterns of behaviour that are commonly displayed are:
Passive aggressive behaviour is common. While survivors may feel resentment toward management, fear of reprisal can cause them to redirect their resentment toward colleagues.
Lowered morale is one of retrenchment's most common effects on survivors. It presents in symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness, tension, fatigue, and impaired judgment. Left unchecked, these stressors wear away the employee's resolve, confidence, and stamina.
Retrenchment survivors often describe their work as less creative and of lower quality.
Retrenchment survivors use withholding behaviours, such as performing no more than the minimum job requirements.
At the extreme end of the survivor response continuum is aggression. According to Cianco (2000), some retrenchment survivors admit to direct sabotage as retribution against their employers.
Finally, some survivors just leave the organisation, taking their talent, experience, and knowledge with them-usually to a competitor. Organisations in a downturn commonly respond by leaving the position vacant.
It is Noer (1993) that coined the term layoff survivor sickness and according to him, survivors experience 12 different types of negative feelings and concerns:
Job insecurity. Survivors wonder how long they will keep their jobs, and they worry there are no comparable outside jobs. This is especially true in the current economic climate. This will influence their work behaviours and attitudes on a daily basis.
Discontent with the retrenchment process. Retrenchments that are handled insensitively or in a degrading manner can create permanent resentment amongst employees.
Sense of permanent change. There is an overall sentiment that working for the organisation will never be as good as it once was.
Short-term profit orientation. Some survivors dread that management will introduce further retrenchments if profits do not reach acceptable levels in the near future.
Lack of management credibility. Some employees deem management no longer able to address the core business concerns of the organisation.
Lack of strategic direction. The narrow focus on short-term cash problems leads employees to suspect the soundness of the long-term strategy of the organisation.
Discontent with planning and communication. Lack of communication and sufficient preparation of employees for retrenchments causes survivors to view the entire process with distrust.
Lack of reciprocal commitment. Some employees feel the organisation has forsaken them. Survivors feel that the organisation has not treated them with the dignity and respect to which the psychological contract entitles them. The kind of win-win situation (employee-employer) developed over the years is completely negated.
Distrust and betrayal. Some employees no longer believe in the organisation's future or their place as an important member of the organisation. Employees do not see the logic in being concerned about their employer, since their employer was not really concerned for their colleagues.
Reduced risk taking and motivation. Many survivors are afraid to take advantage of an employment opportunity, accept a new project, or discuss a work related problem because they are apprehensive that they open themselves to criticism and therefore, become the target of the future retrenchment.
Depression, anxiety, fatigue. The process is demoralising and stressful for the implementers, as well as for employees who lose friends and colleagues. Questions like: "Will I be the next to go - even though it looks now as if I'm staying?" seems to be high on the list of anxieties.
Unfairness. Doubts arise about the wisdom of the choice of retrenchments made by the managers, as well as the competence with which management has guided the organisation. If the process was not planned, managed and implemented effectively, employees felt that the process was not fair.
There is also the impact of survivors' guilt. This refers to a fundamental condition that leads to, and is often expressed in terms of, other survivor syndrome symptoms, such as depression, fear or anger. In the context of survivor syndrome symptoms, guilt may be generally defined as "a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offence; an emotional reaction that one has violated social mores (Gottesfeld cited in Noer, 1993, p.14). This guilty feeling is experienced by the implementers who carry out the retrenchments, as well as by the surviving employees. These employees mull over why their colleagues were retrenched instead of themselves (Cianco, 2000). As the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 as amended prohibits retrenchment decisions being based on performance, the survivors have done nothing more or special to keep their positions.
Based on the preceding discussion, it is evident that survivor syndrome is complicated, and the cure does not lend itself to a one-dimensional prescription (Noer, 1993, p.86). A four-level model of intervention for this complex phenomenon, as well as general guidelines to negate the negative effects of survivor syndrome will be discussed in the next section.
Survivor support plans and interventions
Most organisations provide assistance programmes to help the employees leaving, but very few have programmes for the ones remaining. The retrenched employees are often assisted with life, financial and career counselling - all of which are paid for by the organisation. The survivors' however, are expected to come to work as if nothing happened. A strong norm of denial within the organisation often forces survivors to suppress their anger. This suppression could result in survivor guilt, depression and in some cases, substance abuse. The organisation often devotes no resources to assist employees that stay behind to deal with their survivor syndrome symptoms (Noer, 1993).
The reasons why organisations tend to overlook survivor needs can only be hypothesised on. Appelbaum et al., (1997), suggests that the organisations are so uni-dimensionally focused on the activities relating to retrenchment, that they forget to address issues pertaining to survivors until they present a problem; that is, survivor needs are managed by exception. A second reason might be that management in organisations believes that keeping employees informed about retrenchment issues is enough.
However, as Isabella and Cameron (cited in Appelbaum et al., 1997) indicated, survivors also require information about potential future change, new organisational values and expectations on performance and career growth opportunities. Even if such communication process exists, employees must not only understand the retrenchment rationale put forth by the company, but they must also feel that the rationale was valid (Levitt et al., 2008).
Furthermore, perceived fairness must be present during the process of retrenchment and employees must perceive that the method used was fair. When the survivors feel that the situation was handled fairly for both those leaving and those remaining, the symptoms of the survivor syndrome are still apparent, but have been alleviated (Levitt et al., 2008).
Retrenchment and restructuring causes substantial problems - these problems are presented on both personal and structural levels. People often resist change. In time the situation cool off, people settle in and angst problems are finally resolved by acceptance (Wiesner et al., 1999). However, as retrenchment causes strong negative reactions that affect employee productivity, the retrenchments can, in some cases, negate the cost benefits and cost saving from retrenchment, resulting in fact in double failure: the financial strength and the human aspect (Appelbaum et al., 1997). Some programmes and guidelines are required to counteract and manage survivor syndrome.
Wells (2008), Noer (1995) and Cascio (1993) have suggested some guidelines to be followed in negating the negative effects of survivor syndrome:
Ensure a perception of fairness in restructuring decisions. Go to trouble to retain your best performers and show your employees that you're going to take a number of actions before you have to reduce permanent employed staff. Ensure that survivors know that the retrenched employees are well-cared for.
Give survivors a reason to stay. Draft specific plans with timelines so that employees know what's next and how they can track company progress and improvement.
Facilitate grieving and venting. The best way to help employees be freed from the restraints of survivor syndrome is to find ways to facilitate emotional release.
Over-communicate, tell the truth and seek advice. Let employees know specifically where the organisation is struggling and, with coaching from managers, ask them to help the organisation adapt to the change in the economic environment. When retrenchments do occur, keep lines of communication open and utilise using multiple channels of communication.
According to Noer (1993), however, survivor syndrome is complex and does not lend itself to a simple solution. It contains conflicts of values centred on organisational co-dependency and self-empowerment. To be cured of it, survivors must let go of the familiar old, and venture into the untested new. Creating organisational systems that will prevent the reoccurrence of this syndrome / sickness ought to be one of the most fundamental priorities of organisational leaders.
These interventions will be powerful acts, attention-grabbing and stimulating forces that compel survivors to choose personal and organisational change. Four levels of intervention are needed to deal with survivor syndrome. These levels are illustrated in figure 3.3 below.
Figure 3.4: Four-level intervention model for survivor syndrome
Source: Noer, 1993, p.97
Level 1 interventions deal with the process - the way retrenchments take place from the survivors' perspective. These interventions do not provide a cure for survivor syndrome, but keep survivors from sinking further into survivor symptoms. Survivors involvement in the decision-making process, their level of attachment to the victims, and their perception as to the fairness and equity of retrenchments have all been documented as important process factors that planners / implementers should consider (Noer, 1993, p.96; Wells, 2008; & Cascio 1993).
Process interventions are tactical. Though important, they are hygiene factors that serve only to stop the bleeding; they do not promote healing. Healing itself begins with emotional release or grieving. Second-level grieving interventions are addressed in the next level (Noer, 1993, p.117).
Level 2 interventions help survivors grieve. These interventions deal with repressed emotions and feelings and provide the opportunity for a catharsis that releases the energy that has been invested in emotional repression. Most retrenchment survivors are suppressing strong, toxic and debilitating survivor emotions. Level 2 interventions help survivors express these feelings and get them out on the table so they can be dealt with (Noer, 1993).
Emotional release and the necessary grieving over the retrenchments and a lost way of life are prerequisites to healing. Facilitating the release and grieving is a key management role (Noer, 1993, p.132).
Break the co-dependency chain and empower people
Interventions that break the chain of organisational co-dependency, level 3 interventions help survivors re-capture from the organisation their sense of control and self-esteem. The purpose of third-level interventions represents a basic shift in focus from earlier interventions. Levels 1 and 2 react to existing survivor syndrome symptoms. Level 3 offers the possibility of preventing the sickness in the first place. Level 3 interventions are both more complex and more useful than levels 1 and 2 (Noer, 1993, p.134).
Breaking organisational co-dependency is essentially an individual effort. The individual detaches from the organisational system as a culture. Organisations too need to detach, moving away from employee control and toward true employee empowerment means letting go of an attitude rooted in history. The pay-off is survival and relevance in the new paradigm. Reformulated organisations have the opportunity to create systems and processes that are congruent with the new psychological employments contract and to form a new partnership with empowered employees who have broken the chain of co-dependency. This link will be discussed in the following section (Noer, 1993, p.155).
Level 4 interventions create the structural systems and processes that structurally mitigate retrenchment survivor syndrome and immunises employees from survivor syndrome (Noer, 1993, p.92). These interventions are developed from the new psychological employment contract (Noer, 1993, p.156), which is illustrated in Figure 3.4 below:
Figure 3.5: New psychological employment contract for reformulated organisations
Source: Noer, 1993:158
Level 4 interventions are the supporting and complementary systems changes that will promote the climate that invites individual empowerment and autonomy. It is hard to say which comes first, the change in the system or the change in the individual, because the two changes are totally interdependent (Noer, 1993, p.185).
Although the four-level pyramid is a stage model and is intended to convey the increasing depth and breadth of each successive intervention, the real is more dynamic than any model. This model should serve as a general conceptual model, and not as an exact road map (Noer, 1993, p.93).
A number of aspects are clear when reviewing the literature:
Survivors view retrenchment as a breach of trust between employee en employer;
The breach of trust and increased expectations of the employee by the organisation leads to increased stress, reduced loyalty and negative feelings toward the organisation;
The communication by the organisation to the employee during and after the retrenchments process may lead to negative or positive feelings;
The negative feelings experienced by survivors as a result of the retrenchment may be transitional and change over time;
The perceived fairness of the retrenchment process can affect the employee's commitment to the organisation.
The following chapter discusses the qualitative methodology employed in this study as is fitting with researching the experiences of retrenchment survivors.