US based research has revealed the impact that downsizing has on HR professionals – and it turns out that HR feel the effects more personally than you may expect.


The team, Judy Clair, Jamie J. Ladge and Richard D. Cotton  conducted in-depth interviews with 21 HR professionals who had carried out several downsizing events on behalf of their organizations.

Participants came from companies in the Northeast U.S., a region that has experienced tens of thousands of terminations over the last two decades, according to 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The number of people that participants reported having laid off ranged from 20 to more than 250 individuals. They had assisted in making decisions about who to let go, in carrying out the downsizing, and in discussing the terminations with employees.

It turns out that HR Managers found these decisions extremely difficult.  The researchers were surprised by the depth of feelings that HR professionals showed:

“Because a major part of an HR professional’s job involves helping employees—through hiring, onboarding, providing benefit services, etc.—many participants described feeling a tension between helping and hurting others that affected them significantly.

“We expected that participants would experience distress, but the depth of a few participants’ sadness from carrying out layoffs surprised us; several people cried during their interview.”

The found that seven stressors in particular evoked suffering among the HR professionals:

1) having to deliver harm to others that felt unnecessary or unjustifiable,

2) feeling that necessary evils conflicted with other work obligations, beliefs, or values (such as that helping others is a primary function of HR),

3) feeling stigmatized by others (such as being referred to as “the grim reaper”),

4) feeling personally responsible for negatively impacting people’s lives,

5) being repeatedly exposed to others’ pain and suffering,

6) feeling that one couldn’t escape the work of harming others, and

7) having inadequate recovery time between difficult tasks.  These caused a number of the interviewees to feel exhausted and burned out.


At least one HR manager told the team that they intended to quit HR several months after the interview, purely due to the pressures of repeated downsizing.

However, the majority of participants in the study had developed coping mechanisms that enabled them to manage the stress- and it turns out using their empathic skills were especially effective.

Though it wasn’t required by their bosses, many of the HR Managers who took part in the study said they actively sought to minimize others’ pain and offered care for those directly affected. For example, they would spend extra time with someone who was especially distressed and take care to protect the privacy of those being terminated. They would also help people pack up and personally walk them out, rather than get security involved. So instead of being distant or detached, their approach was to engage with the hurt parties and to be empathetic and compassionate.

Previous research had found that participants carrying out ‘necessary evils’ would handle the provess by physically, emotionally, and cognitively withdrawing—essentially cutting themselves off from others’ pain. For example, people would hide in their offices or avoid elevators, so they wouldn’t have to interact with colleagues being laid off; they would refer to people by numbers rather than their names, when deciding whom to lay off; or they would rationalize that people being let go would have the opportunity to start fresh.

However, in the first study (where they withdrew), people weren’t repeatedly doing this work. It was a one-time event, and many of them had never carried out downsizing before. Conversely, in the current study, people had been doing this work for a long time.

Compared to those who tried to limit the emotional toll of their work through avoidance, the survey noted that study participants who stayed engaged and helped those in need actually ended up being more resilient over the long term. They appeared to be less emotionally overcome with the trials of repeatedly carrying out necessary evils and remained comparatively more positive and energized to make a positive contribution through their difficult work.


It seems, therefore, that HR Professionals who have to sometimes undertake unpleasant tasks can can offset their own personal distress by engaging and focusing on the part of their job that means helping others.  This seems to both reduce the trauma for both parties and reinforces the HR Managers sense of meaning and self-worth, enabling them to undertake an important organizational role, conducting ‘necessary evils’ while retaining their integrity and compassion.

The team said:

“While our work cannot answer why certain HR professionals were able to more readily focus on helping rather than hurting, our findings provide insights for all workers and organizations.

“Employees should understand that performing necessary evils on the job can have significant negative effects on their wellbeing. They should be trained to recognize how focusing on helping those harmed can benefit themselves and their colleagues.  Police can arrest others and maintain a dignified approach, bill collectors can avoid shaming people who are late paying bills, and doctors can deliver bad news with empathy and caring attitudes. Each can offer help in the moment and afterwards.”

“A long history of research shows that people who do socially intensive work that involves repeated exposure to others’ pain and suffering, such as emergency medical technicians and social workers, are at higher risk of burnout. To counteract that, workers must focus on self-care. Employees need to have guiding principles and actions that emphasize their own health and well-being.

“Today’s workplace often prizes efficiency at the expense of caring, which creates a barrier to implementing a help-centered approach. However, our results suggest that this focus comes at a cost to those being harmed, the individuals who must carry out necessary evils, and ultimately to the organizations in which ‘necessary evil’ work is present.


Judy Clair, Ph.D. University of Southern California, is an associate professor at Boston College in the Management and Organization Department.  Professor Clair’s research interests include understanding impacts of significant organizational change events, such as downsizing, on organizations and individuals who inhabit them, as well as the study of interrelationships among identity, diversity, work/family, and the professions.

Jamie J. Ladge is an associate professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University. She received her PhD in Organization Studies from Boston College. Her research interests are focused on the intersection of identity, work-life integration, and gender and diversity in organizations.

Richard D. Cotton is an assistant professor of management at University of Victoria. He received his PhD in Organization Studies from Boston College.  His research interests include extraordinary career success, developmental networks, mentoring, talent management and relational dynamics.

Original article appeared in Harvard Business Review

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