Escape velocity

Push to Exit

Just waiting for the right moment...

A recent survey of over 4,000 UK employees conducted by GfK NOP found that one in four were planning to leave their organisation within the next year.

The survey suggests these intentions are linked to the actions taken by the employers dealing with the effects of the recession. Continuing measures such as redundancies, recruitment freezes, pay freezes and restrictions on training have led to reduced morale and diminished job satisfaction.

In the public sector almost 40% of employees reported that morale was worse than the previous year.

Throughout the recession a lot of attention has been paid to the obvious victims — those who have suffered redundancy and job loss — but what about the survivors, the ones who have kept their jobs but may have suffered in other ways?

Survivor syndrome

Joel Brockner (1992) borrowed the term ‘survivor syndrome’ from the realm of severe traumatic events, such as genocide and natural disasters and applied it to corporate restructuring and redundancies. It relates to the negative feelings and changes of behaviour demonstrated by those who have been left behind.

Various studies into the after-effects of restructuring on those who remain in the organisation have identified a number of potential impacts in areas such as reduced feelings of job security, reduced commitment to the organisation, increased turnover intentions, increased stress and reduced well-being or morale. However, the nature and severity of the impacts depend on the way in which the employer deals with the situation.

Breaking the psychological contract

In the wave of downsizing and restructuring that took place in the 1980s and 1990s many employees were shocked at being suddenly laid off. They had assumed that they had an unspoken mutual agreement with their employer that, in return for loyalty to the organisation, they would be rewarded with job security.

This implied bargain was called the ‘psychological contract’. It is a set of beliefs about what is a reasonable reward for your actions. The employees expected that certain behaviours on their part would be reciprocated by corresponding behaviours from their employers. They also assumed that the employers understood and agreed to the terms of this agreement without it ever being explicitly stated.

The terms and conditions of a psychological contract do not just cover continued employment. They may also include expectations about training, development, compensation or promotions.

Employers may reinforce these beliefs unintentionally through their words and actions. Similarly, employees may fall prey to confirmation bias — only paying attention to the words and actions of their employer that reinforce their initial expectations. Obviously, when an employer does something that significantly contravenes the assumed contract, this will break the employee’s self-delusion, resulting in disappointment, distrust, resentment and possibly embarrassment at being so gullible.

The employees who remain in an organisation after a restructuring may have had the same unrealistic expectations of their employer as the people who left. Having seen what happened to their ex-colleagues, their own psychological contracts may have been broken.

[As a bit of an aside, during the Advanced Guidance Skills course I was co-delivering last week, we focused on the process of contracting during a guidance or coaching discussion. Unless the agreement you build with a client about what you will work on together is detailed, explicitly agreed and continually monitored and adjusted, they may construct their own set of assumptions about what will happen — their own psychological contract. If you can’t deliver on their imagined expectations, you risk producing the same responses as the contract-breaking employers.]

Behaving justly

One factor which seems to mitigate the negative consequences of cost-cutting actions is the perceived fairness of the employers actions. This fairness has three components:

  • Distributive justice — Are the outcomes fair and equitable?
  • Procedural justice — Is the decision making process consistent and transparent?
  • Interactional justice — Are people involved in the process and treated with respect?

According to Beugre & Baron (2001) and Brockner (1995), procedural and interactional justice can have the biggest impact on an employee’s attitude to their employer during a restructuring.

I wonder how many employers included in the GfK NOP survey focused on procedural and interactional justice during their cost-cutting activities.

[As another aside, the contract built between an adviser and a client should also cover, not only the content of the discussion, but also the process and the dynamics of the relationship between the two parties.]


  • Have you had any experience of survivor syndrome?
  • Has your psychological contract ever been broken?
  • Any good examples of procedural or interactional justice?
  • What are your good and bad experiences of building contracts with clients?
  • Brockner, J. (1992) Managing the effects of layoffs on survivors California Management Review, 34(2), 9-28.
  • Appelbaum, S., Delage, C., Labib, N. & Gault, G. (1997) The survivor syndrome: aftermath of downsizing. Career Development International, 2(6), 278-286. DOI: 10.1108/13620439710178639
  • Robinson, S. & Rousseau, D. (1994) Violating the psychological contract: Not the exception but the norm. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15(3), 245-259. DOI: 10.1002/job.4030150306
  • Beugre, C. & Baron, R. (2001) Perceptions of systemic justice: The effects of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(2), 324-339. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb00199.x
  • Brockner, J. (1995) Decision frame, procedural justice, and survivors′ reactions to job layoffs. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 63(1), 59-68. DOI: 10.1006/obhd.1995.1061

Related post: Constructing successful careers


, , , , ,

  1. #1 by Ghislaine Dell on 18 June 2010 - 12:55

    Interesting! The clients I work with are in a slightly different situation – they are explicitly told that their work will last only a certain duration – but are given open-ended contracts for legal reasons. This then indeed gives them certain assumptions about how they will be treated, leading to a sense of bitterness when they realise that this ‘contract’ is not real. Our approach to this here is to instil, from induction, a sense that their career is their responsibility, not the employer’s – but at times this feels a bit like we’re betraying them. But how can we avoid employees forming these psychological contracts, and feeling ‘entitled’ to the next bit of money that comes in, when we are at once saying that institutions should ‘look out for’ the career development of researchers, and that researchers are in fact responsible for their own careers and should not ‘expect’ a job? Especially when the ‘procedural justice’ aspect seems murky at best…. Are we, as career professionals supporting the career development of these individuals, obligated to lobby for greater procedural and interactional justice on their behalf? (Sorry, probably a question too far!)

    • #2 by David Winter on 21 June 2010 - 16:57

      I don’t think it’s a question too far. Have a look at Tristram Hooley’s post on the Politics of Guidance. I think it’s important to ask these questions. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to ask good questions of our clients, but maybe we should also be posing difficult questions to ourselves and to the powers that be. What do you think?

  2. #3 by David Winter on 22 June 2010 - 06:48

    More on this from the Guardian Careers Blog.

  3. #4 by Ghislaine Dell on 25 June 2010 - 13:50

    Going to get my big wooden spoon out here. Given all the comment following how useless we all are (!) from Graduatefog, maybe one approach we could take is to look at the unspoken contract that students form with us without even stepping through the door. If (and it is a big if) students are put off from coming to us because they think we only help people who know what they want as a career, how can we get over to them, possibly by redefining that perceived contract, that what we are is a ‘choosing and planning a career’ service? Or that we are not the ‘magic job matching service’ either….

    • #5 by David Winter on 25 June 2010 - 16:01

      I think you’re absolutely right, Ghislaine. A while back at Queen Mary we did a non-user survey to find out what stopped people coming to the careers service. The two top reasons why people didn’t use us were (and I can’t remember which order they came in):
      (a) We didn’t know there was a careers service
      (b) We thought it was just for people who know what they want to do

      Ironically, we also had some people saying that they didn’t think it was worth coming to the careers service because they already knew what they wanted to do. (Talk about lose-lose!)

      Students don’t come to university with a blank sheet as far as careers services are concerned. They already have expectations about what we will deliver. They may have arrived at these expectations based on what happened to them at school, or possibly by inference from what they perceive to be possible. (I can’t imagine how anyone would go about helping me if I’m this confused – therefore they can’t possibly offer that kind of help. QED.)

      I suspect that the other thing that stops people using the careers service is negative emotion associated with thinking about careers – fear of failure, guilt, embarrassment, dread, etc.

      I think possibly one of our most fundamental tasks as we tackle the employability agenda is to think about our brand. What is the message we want people to hear and remember about the careers service? We need to be really careful and consistent about this. It’s no good just replacing one set of unrealistic expectations with another (i.e. If I don’t know what to do the careers service will tell me.)

      Our message needs to tackle the preconceptions and the emotions. We need to be saying ‘We can make failure less likely. We won’t make you feel guilty. You have no need to feel embarrassed. We can take away some of that dread.’

      Alternatively, perhaps we should be using those emotions, ‘You should definitely feel guilty, but we’ll show you how to do things that will make you feel less guilty.’ ‘You’re right to dread the future, but we can teach you how to cope with it.’

      I’ve started a discussion on the UK HE Career Professionals LinkedIn Group to share examples and ideas of how to reach and respond to students who don’t use the careers service because they don’t know what they want to do. Please join in.

  4. #6 by David Winter on 31 August 2010 - 15:19

  1. Hanging on to talent. « C2 Careers
  2. Does your organisation do ‘employee engagement’? Who and How? (Part 2) | markconnorprosser

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: