What to Say, and Not Say, To Someone Recently Laid Off

I’ve been on both sides of the lay-off equation now, and neither is particularly easy. Obviously, retaining a role in an organization is the “better” outcome, but it’s hard to know what to say to folks impacted by a reduction in force making interactions awkward and uneasy.

It doesn’t have to be this difficult so here are some tips for reaching out to friends and co-workers transitioning to a new next step.

  • Treat laid off co-workers with the same dignity and respect you’ve always treated them.

Being laid off can feel very lonely.  Co-workers don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything at all often avoiding impacted employees.  If co-workers continue to work in the office during a transition (as some companies offer as they look for new opportunities) treat them the same way you’ve always treated them.  Say hello, grab coffee, ask about their kids, etc.  You won’t catch the “Lay Off Disease” by including them the same way you did before their role was eliminated.

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone impacted, but take care in how you do it.

I had a co-worker type the following via IM: “Hi, just checking in on you, you doing okay?” to which I replied, “I’m doing well, how about you?”  She replied that she was doing well, and that was the end of the interaction.  If you are going to wade in, don’t stop when your big toe hits the water.  If you are checking in on someone because they are impacted, don’t be afraid to say that you heard their role was eliminated.  I had another long term co-worker reach out and say the following: “I’m really sorry to hear you were impacted.  If there is anything at all I can do, please reach out.  Actually, I was just at XYZ company, and there are some great folks there and they are hiring.  I think you should definitely reach out to them.”  He then went on to give me the names of former employees from our current company that now work there.  They are folks I know, and I immediately reached out.

  • Make a firm offer to help, or don’t make one at all.

In my example above, I had a co-worker offer to help, and it was pretty generic, but he followed that up with something I could actually action – a company hiring that has employees that used to work at my current employer.  That gave me an in, and also made me feel hope.  If you can offer an ear, do that, and don’t worry that you cannot offer more.  Don’t make some nebulous “I’m here if you need me” kind of offer.  That puts the burden back on the person laid off, and trust me, they are dealing with enough.

  • Be very careful offering advice.

On this one, my recommendation is to not offer advice.  No one knows what anyone else is going through, or has going on in their personal life.  Advice is presented from the point of view of the person giving the advice.  Telling someone to start a business, or go work for a non-profit while good intended may be too much for someone also processing the news of an elimination.  Perhaps that is a great path for someone, but jumping in to solve early on can lead to overwhelm and frustration.  Let the impacted person take the lead on exploring possibilities.  If they bring it up, get curious about what they are thinking.  They are in the lead, you are there to reflect and listen.

  • Empathy is key.

Many of us have been through a reduction, and many have gone on to offer great contributions to other organizations.  That can be helpful to know.  Being with someone who has experienced the same event lets us know we are not alone. Empathy is feeling with someone.  It means being willing to tap into the emotions you also felt in a similar situation.  Being laid off is a loss, and many folks process through the grief cycle.  Be with them through those stages knowing they may move through them multiple times before coming to acceptance.

  • Be careful about sharing too much about your own similar experience.

As I noted above, empathy is key, but be careful not to hijack the conversation or project your own emotions and feelings about your own past circumstance on to the other. Let your friend or co-worker take the lead here.  Let them identify their emotions, and don’t make them wrong for what they feel.  If they feel humiliation, as I did, let them.  They know what they feel, and whether or not you felt the same is not important right now.  Do reassure them that what they are feeling is understandable.  Receive what they say, and listen.  It is one of the greatest gifts you can offer.

Experiencing a loss is never easy, and we are rarely ready with the best possible response, but there are a few ways to make an interaction less awkward.  Listen, let the impacted person take the lead, if you can, make a firm offer of help with actionable information, and continue to engage.  What people need in this situation is an ear and understanding, and each of us can offer that.

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