How To Act When Someone Around You Loses Their Job

’Tis the season for gift-giving, merriment and fourth-quarter layoffs as companies reduce payrolls before the year ends. Ouch.

When corporate layoffs occur around the winter holidays, these unpleasant events seem to come with an added Scrooge-like sting. But the truth is, no matter what time of year layoffs happen, they pretty much suck and can leave those who still have jobs bewildered and confused about how to comfort their fallen comrades. 

Losing a job ranks No. 8 on the Holmes-Rahe stress inventory ― not far behind the death of a spouse or going to jail ― so experts say it behooves us to step up and express our condolences. Make eye contact. Give a hug when appropriate. And be sincere. All too often we cave to our fears about saying the wrong thing and, as a result, don’t say anything at all. Or maybe we suffer a collective survivors’ guilt because we still have our jobs and others don’t.

Whatever the reason, if you’re among the tongue-tied who don’t know how to respond, keep these tips in mind:

Take your lead from the person who lost a job.  

If they hurriedly flee the building in tears after being told the news, there’s an excellent chance they don’t want you chasing them out to the parking lot to ask about future plans. On the other hand, it they send out an email announcing their last day and providing you with contact info, use it. 

Layoff day in the office is invariably a painful event and, unsurprisingly, little real work gets done. Everyone’s attention is on the door of the HR office, watching who exits holding severance packets. If you are among the fortunate who get to keep their job, try and remember that unemployment isn’t contagious. Don’t be afraid to approach someone clearing out their desk. A simple “I’m sorry” and the ability to listen works just fine.

There is no need to parrot how life can be unfair or mention that you just read how tight the job market is. Same for sharing the story of your friend who had to move back home with parents after a layoff. Be supportive and be proactive. Offer to buy them lunch when the dust settles, or if you have contacts who could help, offer to reach out. 

Many people use social media to announce their job loss. Pay attention to the tone they use and tailor your response accordingly. One of MarketWatch Moneyologist’s favorite such announcements went something like this: “I’ve been looking for it everywhere and I haven’t been able to find it. So, darn it, it looks like I’ve gone and lost my job.”

The message in the tone was clear: Keeping it light, so spare me the sympathy.

Remember the news is theirs to share, not yours.

Many newly unemployed people find that social media not only serves to tell everyone all at once, but provides an excellent opportunity to announce their availability for other jobs. This is a great way to kick off a new job search.

But that doesn’t mean you get to share someone else’s news without their express permission. The fact that they posted it to Facebook is not express permission. Ask the person directly before you go there.

The company you may want to refer them to may not be one your friend wants to work for. And, as for sharing this news with others who may know the person, remember that if they were close enough friends, they likely already know. There’s no need to use someone else’s job loss as gossip fodder, and being the first to know holds no special cache in these situations.

But you can certainly note the value of their social media announcement. As Next Avenue reported, when Sree Sreenivasan was let go from his job as chief digital officer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he didn’t miss a beat. He posted his news to Facebook, broadly mentioning his plans — consulting, writing a book and taking a working vacation to India ― but then added: “If you want to invite me to anything, I now have time, including for meaningful cups of coffee and drinks. I’d also love to go walking with anyone available. I try to walk 5 miles a day, I plan to make it 8-10 miles this summer.” His post had more than 1,200 likes and nearly 500 comments. Again, note the tone. 

Don’t make it about you.

No, you are not really envious of the person who lost their job, so don’t say you are. Don’t even try B.S. lines like, “I hate my job so much that I wish they would have canned me,” or “Damn, you get to sleep late and stay in your pajamas all day.”

If you really hate your job so much or want to sleep late, all you have to do is raise your hand, and you too can enjoy the “freedom” that unemployment offers.

That may include the freedom to lose health insurance, the freedom to not be able to pay your rent on time, and the freedom to spend hours a day sending your resume into the internet’s black hole without so much as an acknowledgement that it was received. 

Losing a job stinks, except in rare cases. Get real.

Sending them job leads that are clearly beneath them is insulting, so don’t.

You may know of an opening that is way beneath the pay scale or in a totally different field from the job your friend just lost. Keep it to yourself. The former head of IT is not looking for a job at the fast-food drive-thru. At least, not yet.

While your intentions may be laudable, the message is likely: “You must be desperate.” I know a writer recently laid off from a well-paying corporate job. A friend sent her a job ad for a website offering $15 for a post. Her teenager earns more than that in an hour of babysitting. Although there may come a time when her job-hunting status changes to “any port in a storm,” that is not the case immediately. 

A better route is to offer to circulate your out-of-work friend’s resume to your networks. People know people who know people.

Help them see their situation in a different light.

Sometimes, we define ourselves by what we do. But we are all more than just the title on our business cards. 

Help your friend put a fresh spin on their situation. Talk about how excited you are for all the new possibilities they have, point out they now can pursue a job that they really want, or return to school and get some training in a totally different field, or finally write that book.

And remind them that one door closes and another opens only for people who believe it will.

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