'Where Did My Co-Worker Go?' Stealth Layoffs Become Widespread

stealth layoffsEvery week, there seems to be another major employer announcing mass layoffs. But equally prevalent, though less noticed, is the steady stream of employers who conduct "stealth layoffs" every couple of months -- methodically shedding smaller numbers of staff so quietly that often many employees in the firm aren't aware of the cuts.

Just this week there was international media coverage of Barclays' announcement that it was laying off 3,700 workers. But you'd have to scour the web for mentions of the fact that large military contractors in Florida have slashed hundreds of jobs in preparation for the winding down of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, or that Pfizer has quietly laid off hundreds of workers in Groton, Conn., more than it initially it said it would. No formal announcement was made when the job cuts were made, and sometimes employers wouldn't even acknowledge making them, reports The Orlando Sentinel.

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In a meticulously-reported story, the Sentinel notes that Lockheed Martin "eliminated an unspecified number of local jobs through a restructuring," but that the company wouldn't disclose how many or even explain why to the reporter, Richard Burnett. The job cuts took effect Jan. 1. Northrop Grumman also laid off 200 workers in 2012 but didn't even "acknowledge the cuts until months after they had occurred," Burnett writes.

There are definite advantages for employers to have layoffs occur under the radar. "It's bad publicity to have a layoff because the immediate reaction is that [the company] has financial issues," says J.T. O'Donnell, a former human resources exec-turned-career coach. "Employers don't want that negativity out there."

In addition, she says when an employer announces a mass layoff, it can have a debilitating effect on the staff, lowering morale and productivity. "The whole place grinds to a halt," O'Donnell says. (Under federal law, if an employer is going to lay off more than a third of the staff, it must give at least 60-days notice.)

Stealth layoffs first became popular during the Great Recession, as investment banks quietly made "the deepest staff reductions in years" with nary a word, according to a much-quoted 2008 article in The New York Times. While after the 1987 stock crash, banks herded workers into conference rooms and fired people en masse, during the financial crisis the banks made "small cuts" over weeks, even months. "Nobody knows who is coming in; nobody knows who is going out," one laid-off worker told the Times.

More:Barclays To Cut 3,700 Jobs As Part Of Its 'Project Transform'

O'Donnell, who once was a corporate hitman responsible for executing staff reductions, says that, "unfortunately," layoffs have become a routine part of business, even if companies use stealth layoffs, in part, to hide that fact. "The new norm is for employers to look at the company operationally every six months," shedding units and people as necessary, she says. People need to recognize that "every job is temporary."

O'Donnell understands the emotional toll of stealth layoffs. "I have heard scenarios where an employer doesn't bother to tell anyone until someone walks into a conference room and says, 'Where's Bill?' "

But she advises everyone to behave as "a business of one" -- actively network, keep your skills current and have some money in the bank -- so you won't have to fear layoffs -- stealth or otherwise.

Employee Tweets Layoffs From Company's Account

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