Not everyone who survives a layoff is grateful. Being laid off is a distasteful experience even when you know it is coming but when you have been made unemployed by a company your life changes immediately. You are no longer a member of a tribe you may have expended years of your life working to maintain, you are now a job seeker.
Job seekers know that their path only moves forward but towards what is unknown. If you survive a layoff you have not moved anywhere and are expected to carry out your duties like little has changed but your working life may be now dramatically worse.
You may have to pick up new work which you may or may not be suitable to carry out. Co-workers who you enjoyed working with are gone, they should be soon ready to put the company in their rear-view mirror. Eventually when they get a job, a process that now takes months and not weeks, they will be enthusiastic about the new company and their new role. This heady enthusiasm will be transmitted to the former co-workers who survived the last layoff and who will look at their own working life and ask if they are truly happy?
Happiness and contentment binds an organisation together. High performing employees want to work with people they feel make them better and more productive. Take those people away as a company goes into employee starvation mode and the result is employees who are not only unhappy but also fearful.
If you want to destroy any organisation make the people who work there afraid. Fear can be healthy; fear of professional obsolescence or fear of a competitor can serve to keep you and your organisation sharp. Bone chilling fear, a sense of absolute dread, can slowly move into the minds of employees who survive layoffs. "When will what I have just seen happen to people I enjoyed working with happen to me?"
In Downsizing and Survivor Syndrome: A Study of HR’s Perception of Survivors Responses (Sahdev and Vinnicombe, 1998), it was found that fear began spreading like a virus through people who had survived a layoff. Loyalty to immediate superiors and co-workers was observed to be unchanged but loyalty to the company plummeted. The response to the increasing sense of fear was to the see company as the opposition and co-workers as your allies.
Those who survived layoffs reported increased levels of stress, felt grief over losing valued co-workers and feared losing their jobs. They also resented the company and its leadership more, all of which are harmful to employee productivity. Waves of layoffs will do more damage to your company than many of your competitors can as waves of layoffs break the spirit of your best people.
Layoffs happen but cutting deep and cutting only once, while horrific at the time, is a better way of handling layoffs. It is terrible for those who are laid off, you will have a lot more job seeking competitors in a dysfunctional job market for a time, but for layoff survivors it allows their organisational leadership to look them in the eye and say "That was it. The layoffs are over and now together we must rebuild and move forward."
Until you can tell people with certainty the organisation is in rebuild mode they will be fearful and when you make them fearful you can be certain they will resent you.