These are unsettling times in the American workplace. When people all around you are being laid off or taking buyouts or just plain getting fired, emotions are many — and mixed. Anger, if you lose your job. Guilt, perhaps, if you don't.
You don't want to get sacked, of course. But you also don't want to see others around you suffer. So you feel slightly ambivalent about having a job in a country where so many don't.
Jobless figures spew forth, as they did Friday, citing an 8.1 percent unemployment rate in the U.S. after more than 650,000 people lost their jobs. You feel like a polar bear on an iceberg in an Al Gore film.
But there's no feeling of superiority in having a job. It could disappear tomorrow. Nothing is certain anymore. Except death and tax cuts (unless you make more than $250,000 a year).
When Jim Galer runs into out-of-work friends and acquaintances in the grocery stores or on the streets of Grand Rapids, Mich. — where he has lived all his life — he feels a pang of survivor's guilt.
Being employed — in a sea of joblessness — can be a strange feeling these days, he says.
With unemployment in Michigan near 12 percent, according to recent data from the Michigan Department of Labor, Energy and Economic Growth, Galer has plenty of opportunities to feel guilty.
Make no mistake, with a wife and two young children, Galer, 40, knows how important it is to have a job in these harsh economic times. He also knows what it feels like to get laid off. It's happened to him twice. Getting canned, he said, "makes you more empathetic. It has helped me think more collectively, less individually. It tends to make you want to reach out."
Holding onto your job while everybody else is falling around you, said Kim Cameron, can saddle a person with a variety of reactions. Cameron is the William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
People who are left standing after a corporate bloodletting often report feeling anger at losing friends and colleagues; disgruntlement at having to do extra work; fear of losing their own jobs; and envy of those who exited gracefully — with lucrative buyouts or part-time contracts, Cameron said.
Employees who remain at a company can be affected by the emotions — including guilt — that they feel, Cameron said. "Most downsizings have negative long-term results: profitability, quality, efficiency and productivity are damaged. Human factors like loyalty and commitment tend to suffer when workers are viewed as liabilities to be cut."
Survivor's guilt is a very real sensation, said Peter Newfield, president of New York-based Career-Resumes. "It happens all the time. My daughter was laid off at Deloitte in November. And her boss was hysterical," Newfield said. He was beside himself with grief.
"People in the workplace build relationships," he added. "When there are layoffs, it can become a very difficult day for those who survive."
These days Galer is working with companies who are going through transitions. "We help companies do what they do more efficiently," he said. "Mismanagement can hurt people, and we work with companies to try to help them avoid downsizing and layoffs."
Going through rounds of layoffs, Galer said, has made him a more caring person. He said he tries to help his unemployed friends find jobs and make it through the rough times. "Before this all happened," he said, "I wasn't that concerned about the other man."
But now, Galer said, as somebody with a job he does feel a certain amount of concern. And part of that is a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feeling that tomorrow, he could be the one who is unemployed. And his friends could be the ones with the jobs.