Some Sunshine for Survivors of the Layoff Storms

Within the banking industry is an army of working wounded: employees who feel battered by uncertainty and extra pressure.

As shell-shocked survivors of layoffs, mergers, and restructurings, they are burdened with assignments once done by the recently departed and are fearful that their own pink slips are soon to arrive.

Their worries divert mental energy from production - at a time when more and smarter output is critical to the bank as well as to their own professional lives.

Cheering Up

Career experts say feelings of anger, stress, and frustration are normal. Much can be done, they say, to improve spirits - and productivity - once people face and accept the changes as well as their feelings.

After a round of layoffs, survivors may feel guilty about retaining their jobs while their friends must look for new ones, says Thomas F. Mahan, a counselor with Schroeder, Flynn, & Co., an Atlanta-based outplacement firm.

"People feel everything is uncontrollable, unpredictable, and uncertain," he says.

Stay Active

In times of uncertainty, it is important to keep accomplishing things, say the experts.

"If it appears you've stopped making decisions, you become expendable," says Mark Patten, senior vice president in charge of private banking for Norstar Bank of Upstate NY, based in Albany.

Mr. Patten, who teaches team psychology, management, organizational behavior, and communications at three nearby colleges, advises people to seek out opportunities instead of "hunkering down and waiting for change to go by."

We measure ourselves by our accomplishments, says Mr. Mahan. While corporate changes may dash long-term projects and long-term goals, we need to set shorter-term goals in our work lives and home lives.

Finding a Balance

Don't put off that wallpaperng or landscaping project at home, he advises. Now might be a good time to take a professional development course or work on a certificate program - or learn to juggle.

In fact, this may be a perfect time for people to put more balance in their lives, according to Keith T. Darcy, a former banker who is starting a group called the Foundation for Leadership Quality and Ethics Practice to promote ethics in business.

"Many of us have invested too much of our lives in the corporate world," he says, and have focused on return on equity "at the expense of our family and personal growth and development."

Now, says the 14 year veteran of Marine Midland Bank, "we no longer can count on a corporation to enrich and nourish us."

Golden Opportunity

When downsizing hit his bank over a year ago, Mr. Darcy says, he "decided it was time for me to fall on my sword." He felt that by giving up his job, the highest-paid executive post in his department, he might spare the jobs of others.

But now, he says, he realizes that he was not really just being magnanimous.

"I had grown weary of rationalizing six years of consolidations disguised as growth strategies," he said in a Training and Development Journal article published this year. "I had grown weary of witnessing employee terminations and calling them |productivity.' I had grown weary of perpetually competing in the company loyalty test and denying the underlying motivator called fear. I had grown weary of the commute."

In career or lifestyle reassessment, Mr. Darcy says, keep in mind that bigger isn't necessarily better. "Better is what's better," he says, "and sometimes that means smaller, not bigger." The message for the working wounded: Your title, the number of people who report to you, and the amount of assets or expenses you manage are not real measures of who you are.

Networking

This is not a time to be reclusive and turn your office into a fortress. Get out and network, the experts say - not just for other job leads, but for ideas to bring back to your own job.

"I'm dangerous behind a desk," says Mr. Patten of Norstar. "Last time I noticed, my customers were outside the bank. They are the people who give me ideas."

Mr. Patten, who also serves on boards of seven nonprofit community organizations, says all institutions are facing the same harsh facts: Revenues are going down and expenses are going up. What is interesting, he says, is how different groups find different solutions to the same problems.

Mr. Patten is also a firm believer in education to help people stay vital, in good times and bad. "I sometimes ask my people if they would turn down a $700 raise," referring to the company's tuition reimbursement program. "Those who don't take advantage of it "are leaving money on the table."

Career experts agree on the importance of communication during times of change. The best way to manage is to share the nature of the problem, says Mr. Darcy. He cites John F. Akers, chief executive of International Business Machines Corp., who issued a frank statement to employees on his displeasure with the company's performance.

"I communicate to death," Mr. Patten says. "My boss told me he knew I was back from vacation because his internal mail doubled." Let everybody you report to know you're doing a good job, the Norstar executive urges; fill them in on the good news - as well as the bad, to avoid surprises.

And communication to those who report to you is critical, he says. Anxiety levels go up in times of change, and the negative effects of rumors and innuendo can be lessened by a steady stream of information from above.

The intra-office grapevine, while an important source of news in an emotionally charged environment, can create severe morale problems if people are not careful to evaluate the information and its sources.

"Rumor, gossip, and speculation can drag us down if we don't validate the data," says Mr. Mahan, the outplacement counselor. "There's no sense in beating ourselves up based on erroneous information."

Conditioning for Change

Initiating small changes in routine can increase tolerance of the bigger changes. Taking a different train or going to lunch a little earlier or later can open people up to new kinds of behavior and new ideas and ways of working, says Mark J. Carsman, a consultant and counselor with New York based outplacement firm of Fuchs, Cuthrell & Co.

"Habits are wonderful," he says, "but they keep you in your place, which is what they are supposed to do." Changing patterns, he says, can be refreshing and bring us in contact with new people.

Another technique to help rub out negative feelings is to remember other transitions we have mastered. This can help make the latest problems seem manageable.

"We've done it before and we can do it again," says Mr. Mahan. We might recall what we thought was the worst time in our lives - say, the summer when a child was between high school and college - and reflect on the fact we survived.

The Best Medicine

A healthy sense of humor can go a long way to restore our spirits.

Get together with friends at work and bring in baby pictures, advises Malcolm Kushner, a humor consultant who has done work for banks. Baby photos help put things in perspective, he says. They show how much things have changed already in our lives and that the current situation won't last forever.

"There will be a budget again someday," the humorist says.

Another way he suggests to shake off a down mood is to go out in the sun - because a lack of sunlight can trigger depression.

Be glad the layoffs are coming in the spring and summer so you can be in the sunshine, Mr. Kushner says - "unless, of course, you are in New York or Los Angeles and might be the victim of a drive-by shooting!"

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