Last person standing: What it's like when the axe falls in your office

Co-workers can become close friends and offices have their own culture. Here's a look at how those friendships can be cut and the workplace can change when layoffs hit.

In downtown Calgary and other places where layoffs have hit hard, survivors can feel grateful but guilty

With so many layoffs in downtown Calgary, the streets can feel empty and staff can feel disoriented from the changes. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

This story was originally published on Dec. 2.

Getting laid off is tough, but seeing 25 per cent of your colleagues lose their jobs in a single day is its own kind of misery.

At its best, work keeps us happy. Not only does a job provide a sense of security, but close bonds with office colleagues also give a deep sense of belonging.

As Michael Scott once said on The Office, "The people that you work with are, when you get down to it, your very best friends."

That's not just a punch line. Since the late 1990s, the management consulting company Gallup has used the statement "I have a best friend at work" as one of 12 predictors of work performance.

And in downtown Calgary, amid low oil prices and a flurry of layoffs, the sudden disappearance of close colleagues is stressful, painful and demoralizing.

Survivors feel grateful to have been spared, but they also struggle with guilt. At the same time, their workload often increases as they inherit new duties from those who have left.

It begins with the axe.

The axe falls

Staff get told to stay in their offices until HR is finished its work, giving fearful employees lots of time to marinate in anxiety and contemplate their vulnerability.

"You literally sit there for two or three hours emailing with friends," said Natalie Sweet, a Calgary geologist who has experienced — and survived — that doomsday scenario nine times over a 17-year career in the energy sector.

Survivor's guilt can plague many employees after companies lay off staff, as you're not only losing your co-workers but also your friends. (Getty Images)

After the survivors emerge from their offices, they enter a new social landscape. Entire departments can be gone. Friends have vanished. Teams are broken apart. The company "community" is fractured.

"You feel really guilty for being one of the last ones standing," said Sweet.

Survivors may or may not be given a day or two to commiserate at work.

"Companies need to understand that they have to give their surviving employees some time, says Wendy Giuffre of Wendy Ellen Inc., a Calgary company that offers outsourced HR services. "It's not going to be normal for a little while." 

While large companies generally offer this, a small company with just 20 staff may not have that luxury.

"They have to get a job done," said Giuffre. "A lot of these companies have cut back to such bare bones that they don't have the extra hours to sort of accommodate the emotional side of it."

It can get weird

After the immediate fallout from a layoff, things can get a little weird — both inside and outside the office.

Some employees hesitate over whether to contact the recently departed. Is it best to give them space? How soon is too soon? What will I say?

The company landscape can look desolate after layoffs, just like an empty Macleod Trail. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Some people skip over these questions, eagerly meeting for farewell lunches and the like. It's easier to reach out after a large layoff than a small one, Sweet said. "When there's a general big layoff, there's no stigma attached to it."

When just a handful of people are let go, it can be trickier.

Sometimes friendships end because both sides are hesitant to make contact.

"It often becomes awkward," said Marie Habke, a Calgary psychologist who works with both employers and employees.

"It doesn't have to, but sometimes it is the guilt. Sometimes, on the other side, it's the envy — that your ex-co-worker still has a job and you're unemployed."

The awkward get-together

When people do reunite in person, it can be challenging to find new topics of conversation.

"Talking about work is no longer comfortable because the one who's employed can't really complain about work — because after all, they still have a job," said Habke.

People leave the Penn West Tower in Calgary Sept. 1. Penn West Petroleum and ConocoPhillips laid off hundreds of employees in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

At work, meanwhile, there are constant reminders of those who have left: a forgotten scarf, a name on a project, someone's favourite coffee mug. People are gone, but not fully.

"It's kind of like when you break up with somebody," said Sweet. "You see these people every single day for sometimes years … and then all of a sudden their office is empty, their name tag's gone — but their presence is still there."

The disappearance of close colleagues — the old crew that went for drinks every Friday or regularly did lunch — can leave people feeling adrift. "There's a lot of grieving out there right now," said Habke.

It can take months before offices are restructured and vacant spaces are filled in, creating some semblance of a new normal for staff.

Cutthroat culture

Sometimes the office gets more cutthroat as employees feel pressure to excel in order to survive the next layoff. (Take a vacation? No, thanks. More overtime? Yes, please.)

"There starts to be a culture of mistrust around, 'What is the other guy doing to make sure that he's part of the group that stays — and how is that going to impact me?' " said Habke.

"It can make for a really stressful team environment."

Office vacancy rates in Calgary will peak at almost 18 per cent by the third quarter of 2016, according to an annual forecast from U.S.-based real estate investment firm CBRE. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Just as individual identities are shaken by unemployment, companies struggle to rebuild their identities after one in four employees disappears.

Staff disengagement, low morale and weaker performance are common in the aftermath of big layoffs.

Clear communication from company leaders is key to recovery, said Giuffre. Is the downsizing over or is another layoff coming? 


"The more honest you can be with your workforce, I think the quicker it recovers, or at least the quicker it adjusts," Giuffre said.

Social events and traditions such as Christmas parties can also be helpful, as they give employees an opportunity to forge new bonds within the remaining group, Habke said.

"There has to be a sense of a new company, a new group, rather than just an awareness of the old one."

As Alberta's oil patch continues to feel the pinch from plunging oil prices, some Calgary staffing agencies say they have noticed an unprecedented spike in energy industry professionals showing up at their doors. (Tim Boyle/Bloomberg)

Even so, it can be good for the old team — employed and unemployed alike — to come together for one last hurrah.

Reuniting as a big group for a night out can help people on both sides find closure and move on, Habke said.

"I don't want to call it a wake, but in some ways it's that idea of, 'OK, let's raise a glass to what we were.' "

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. It's called Calgary at a Crossroads.


Jeremy Klaszus is a Calgary-based freelance journalist. A generalist who writes on everything from urban design to baseball, Jeremy has won two National Magazine Awards and numerous regional awards for his work. He has contributed to the Globe and Mail, Swerve, The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Traveler.