How to be decent when people you know are laid off

I’ve been watching with sadness this week as our local daily newspaper announced the layoff of 45 editorial staff members, including two people that I’ve known (and did a fair amount work for) for years, along with many others that I’ve been less formally acquainted with.

I’ve gone through the experience of a layoff twice in my career. Once when the alternative weekly I wrote for folded, and again when the national corporation that owned the online city guide I edited decided to roll up most of its local offices. Both experiences were hard for different reasons, and good things did come out of them. They also made me keenly aware that a lot of people are clueless when it comes to talking to someone who has just lost their job.

Since the job loss news just keeps coming, here’s my unsolicited advice about how to be decent to people you know (or worked with) that have been laid off:

1. Don’t treat them like they are contagious or too fragile to touch. If you think you don’t know what to say but that person has meant something to you professionally or personally along the way, making the effort to call or write or somehow say even “I don’t know what to say” is better than not hearing from you at all. Losing a job (even if the job was awful) deserves some kind of ritual observance because an era of that person’s life has been extinguished. I know that the people who took the time to say “you were really great at X, and I’m sorry this happened” to me, or who offered any kind of assistance when I was on the unemployment curb, no matter how small, gave me memories that are more vibrant to me now than any of the bad stuff that’s happened in my career.

2. If you offer yourself up as a listening post, make sure you’re prepared to actively listen and expect that the person may have some intense feelings. It’s disconcerting when someone offers up a shoulder to cry on who really just wants an excuse to hear him- or herself crack-wise and to drink a lot. (That said, some people cope best through humor, in which case the cracking-wise/drinking plan may be in order.)

3. Point out silver linings if you see real ones, but avoid the pat “everything happens for a reason” line. Sometimes that reason is the shortsightedness or mismanagement of people who still have a job. And even if it isn’t, it may be years after you’ve received that pink slip before you are able to see it.

4. Call them again in a few weeks. If you’re laid off en masse, you sometimes have people to commiserate with immediately, but that support system may fade. Once you’ve made it past crisis mode, that’s when things are sometimes the hardest.

5. Buy them lunch. Pay back that $5 you borrowed now. Write a letter of recommendation (or maybe a quick reference on LinkedIn) while you’re thinking of it. And don’t offer to do any of these things in a moment of sympathy if you aren’t really going to follow up.

Anyone else have some advice to share?

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