ST - Low morale, broken trust: How companies can help their employees during layoffs

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 Low morale, broken trust: How companies can help their employees during layoffs

Shermaine Ang
APR 2, 2023

SINGAPORE - Analytics head Jaden (not his real name), who was named Most Valuable Player as an employee of online marketplace Carousell in 2021, could not believe it when he was laid off barely a year later.

“The first thing I asked was ‘why me’. I have made much more impact than some others, I’ve done so much good the last few months,” he told The Straits Times.

“The second thing was, how would they survive without me because there are so many things we manage… Are they really sure that they want to take me off?”

Project manager Alicia (not her real name), who was retrenched in January from a tech firm she had worked at for over 15 years, also found herself in an emotional rut.

“I was not really in the mood to do much, to be honest,” she said. “But after a while, I snapped out of it. And that’s when I went back into action to look for jobs.”

She was mass applying to jobs on social media platform LinkedIn when she came across an ad by Workforce Singapore, and decided to call in for a free career coaching session.

“I didn’t hear back from many companies. So I was quite scared and anxious. But I’m glad that my coach was there to support me; she showed me some hope,” said Alicia, who is in her 30s.

The coach guided her on customising her resume and preparing for interviews.

“Though my confidence was shaken, one thing I’m very clear about is that it’s not my performance that was the cause. My manager was also impacted. And my track record is there.”

She soon found a new job in March as a project manager in tech – one of many roles in the sector that remain highly sought after even as the global tech industry grappled with job cuts, according to the latest report by the Ministry of Manpower on annual job vacancies.

Nearly seven in 10 of all vacancies in information and communications in 2022 were new positions – the highest level across all sectors for the third year running.

Tech firms here reported 1,270 layoffs of resident workers from last July to mid-November.

Helping employees with layoffs

New joiners, higher-paid staff, non-revenue-generating roles and business support functions may be more at risk, observers say.

Mr Paul Heng, founder of NeXT Career Consulting Group, said even those who bring in the most business may be at risk.

He gave the example of a top revenue-generating sales professional who went on an incentive trip to a European country, only to be told her job would be made redundant when she came home.

Employees can consider proposing a pay cut as an alternative to terminating employment, said Mr Heng.

To those facing layoff anxiety, his advice is to not overthink and to focus on what they can control. “So when the writing is on the wall, for example, being excluded from meetings that you are usually required to attend – brace yourself, get your resume ready, and continue networking.”

Mr Faiz Modak, associate director of tech and transformation at Robert Walters Singapore, said firms like Google and Amazon had ramped up their teams to work on new projects after the Covid-19 pandemic and are now returning to their core specialisations.

At the same time, they are investing in new tech like AI and cloud computing to drive profitability.

He advised new employees to speak to senior leaders about the firm’s strategy to tackle the current situation and to evaluate their own role in the organisation.

Suicide prevention centre Samaritans of Singapore said 13 per cent of the calls to its hotline from last July to January this year were employment-related and mostly from those aged 20 to 39. Samaritans got a total of 53,692 calls in the last financial year ending in March 2022.

Mr Ong Jie Li, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, said those who have stressful family responsibilities, unstable finances and weaker support systems tend to be harder hit when they are laid off.

Another vulnerable group are those on employment permits who are providing for their family, as they have to relocate if they are unable to find another job, said Ms Kiki Mohan, a psychotherapist at Alliance Counselling. The centre holds free monthly online support group sessions for people experiencing job loss.

She added that layoffs can also be stressful for those executing them, who may experience dissonance, anxiety and guilt, as well as those witnessing the layoffs, who may face vicarious trauma and survivor guilt.

She said employers can help by providing employee assistance programmes and scheduling layoffs on meeting-free days.

The founder of Insights Bridge Consultancy, Dr Jean Liu, said people who have been laid off report that their sense of identity and security is affected.

Citing research showing that the pain of loss is about twice as strong as the pleasure of gain, she said that such losses can change the way people make decisions in the longer term, and those who have experienced a layoff may have less trust in their new employer.

Mental health researcher Jonathan Kuek said news of layoffs has to be delivered with empathy, addressing employees regularly and personally. He also suggested giving advance notice so employees have time to look for new work.

Former president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute Low Peck Kem noted that some “progressive” companies help employees find jobs in a different departments or other companies. She said companies can engage career transition organisations to help both the retrenched and remaining workers.

“The guiding principle is always to conduct the exercise in a fair, respectful and responsible manner so that retrenched workers will continue to be ambassadors for their companies despite being retrenched.”

For now, Jaden is taking the time to reconnect with old friends, try his hand at new things such as tennis and volunteer work, and holding out for better opportunities.

Alicia, who will begin her new job soon, said: “I’ll have to adjust to new colleagues, a new environment. It’s quite anxiety-inducing as I have to prove myself again.

“I’ll regain my confidence by delivering in the new role.”


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