Published January 23, 2023

The news of increasing layoffs can lead to disengagement among remaining staff, often referred to as survival syndrome. Unless employers apply care and attention to their layoff communications, they may end up with teams of survivor quitters, according to one workplace authority.

“It’s important to have open lines of communication with your team members to encourage them to express any concerns or issues, and to address any issues that may be causing disengagement in a timely manner,” said Andrew Challenger, workplace expert and Senior Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The leap from survivor to quiet quitter is not a large one. Survivor quitting occurs when someone disengages from their work or responsibilities without openly expressing their dissatisfaction or intent to leave soon after layoffs have been conducted. This is a common outcome after layoffs occur to a team, even if the number of reductions is small. Related: Workplace Survivor’s Syndrome in 2020

To spot a survivor quitter, you may look for a lack of motivation or enthusiasm, a decrease in productivity or quality of work, or a lack of participation in team meetings or projects. Survivor quitting can also be communicated through subtle cues such as body language, tone of voice, or attitude.

How do you broach the topic with a disengaged team member?

“It’s important to approach the topic of disengagement in a non-confrontational and empathetic way to mitigate further negative impact on the team. These conversations can not only reengage the worker in question, but if they feel heard and appreciated, they will communicate this to their colleagues,” said Challenger.

Challenger offered the following steps to leaders who have spotted a survivor quitter:

  1. Schedule a one-on-one meeting: Request a private meeting with the team member to discuss their engagement and performance.
  2. Express your concern: During the meeting, let the team member know you are concerned about their work, especially in light of recent layoffs. Explain how their behavior has been noticed by you and the team. Be specific and give examples.
  3. Listen actively: Allow the team member to speak openly and honestly about their feelings, concerns and issues.
  4. Seek solutions together: After hearing their perspective, work together to find solutions to any issues that may be causing disengagement. Create a specific game plan with actionable items. Avoid vague references to attitude or behavior that do not bear on the team member’s role and responsibilities.
  5. Follow up: Follow up with the team member regularly to check on their engagement level and if they are satisfied with the solutions outlined.

“Leaders should avoid blame or punishment at this time. Work to understand and address any issues that may be causing disengagement, and find ways to improve team members’ work satisfaction,” said Challenger.

Unfortunately, if survivor quitting continues to the point that it is negatively affecting the team’s performance, productivity, and morale, it may be time to consider removing this person, either by moving them to a new team within the company or removing them from the organization altogether.

“Particularly post-layoff, employers want to avoid any further turnover. Most go into full retention mode. Good leaders will work to make their remaining teams feel comfortable, valued, and successful,” he added.

Challenger offered these considerations before removing a survivor quitter:

  1. Have you had an open and honest conversation with the team member about their disengagement?
  2. Have you made a genuine effort to understand and address any issues that may be causing the disengagement?
  3. Has the team member been given a fair chance to improve their engagement and performance?
  4. Is the disengagement impacting the team’s ability to meet their goals and objectives?

“In any layoff situation, the decision is enormous. It should include not only the team manager, but also the company’s HR department and appropriate leadership, and should be viewed as a last resort, as it has serious consequences for the individual, team, and organization,” said Challenger.

“If leaders cannot address the underlying issues of survivor quitting and disengagement, they will continue to have problems retaining talent down the line,” he added.

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