How to talk to a friend who’s been laid off

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Being laid off used to be taboo. But not anymore. And most of us have thought through some sort of plan for if it happens to us. Gone are the days when people pretend this is not happening.

One of the things my ex-husband and I did well, as did our peers, was learn to tag-team in the layoff department. We both got laid off pretty much all the time throughout the 90s. And somehow, we got a sort of routine, and it became a normal way of life.

Today there is a generation of us in the workforce, totally familiar with layoffs, and totally unfamiliar with the idea that a job is secure. Ever. The good news about this is that there is not a huge difference between someone laid off and someone not laid off in that all of us feel vulnerable and scared.

Which means the etiquette is different than it used to be for talking to someone who's been laid off.

1. Don’t ask “how’s the job hunt?”
Do you know how many times a day someone hears this if he is unemployed? Ten. And even if it’s not ten really, it’s ten in his head. He asks himself that, and he imagines other people asking that, and he stresses about the answer. Because the job hunt doesn’t change much from day to day, but it’s demoralizing to report that.

So trust that someone who is laid off who has something great to report will volunteer it without you asking.

2. Ask about extracurriculars.
At this point, we have a generation that is accustomed to changing jobs often and thinking in terms of the in-between time with jobs. In between jobs is the best time for real vacations and often the best time for gaining deep knowledge of something totally new. This trend is becoming more pronounced during the current downturn. People are focusing on hobbies, kids, and their health — all interesting topics to talk about.

Those of you who are employed might find a little inspiration here. We all know that it doesn’t make sense to only do this stuff during the in-between time. So find out what changes your unemployed friends made to refocus themselves, and see if you can do it now. Before you get laid off.

3. Ask about health insurance.
There needs to be more collective knowledge on how to deal with health insurance during stints of unemployment. For most people, COBRA is about as cost-effective as a penthouse in New York City. So ask about how people are solving the insurance problem because the more we share information, the smarter we are at solving the problem when it hits us.

(What I learned from my last conversation: Move to Massachusetts. Everyone is covered there. )

4. Talk about industry news.
One of the hardest things about being laid off is keeping up in one’s industry. If you’re at the office each day, you keep up, sort of, through osmosis. But if you are not working in your field, you have to try a lot harder to keep up. Just hearing it first hand from someone who's still employed is helpful.

So tell the person what you’re working on. Trends you’re hearing about. Personnel shifts you’ve seen. Also, gossip counts as news. Workplace gossip is a positive way to bond. The laid-off worker is cut out of this positive gossip loop, unless you supply some. So forget what your mom told you about gossip being bad karma. In this case, gossip equals good karma.

5. Offer up one good contact.
You do not need to pretend that connecting in LinkedIn is going to help this person. I mean, they should have been building their network long before the layoff loomed. But you could offer up one person you know well who could talk with the person laid off.

The truth is that we all know someone who is out of work. And we all know that the next person could be us. Anyone who is feeling smug about having a job has no grip on reality. Sure, some of it is your own doing, your own talent. But some of it is luck. Anyone could be laid off at any time.

This is why almost anyone you ask will help a friend who is laid off. Once. Giving five minutes of help is a reasonable request. So you can make it for a friend. If the friend is not smart enough to turn that five minutes into something bigger, that is not your problem.

6. Acknowledge trouble with the significant other.
More men are getting laid off than women, which puts women in a bad spot because most women choose a husband thinking he’ll earn more than she will (yes, even smarty-pants Stanford women). It used to be that we could not openly discuss the testosterone hit that comes with being laid off. But today it’s fair game, and even compassionate to acknowledge.

Not that women are picking up all the slack. They’re not. Some are in support groups to cope with their boyfriends losing their seven-figure bonuses. Other women lost their jobs right along side their partner.

But the important thing here is that men and women are talking about the relationship dynamic that goes along with a layoff, so you should tread down this conversational path as well.

7. Don’t be shy about gratitude
Tell a co-worker who's been laid off that you miss him or her. And what you miss. It’s hard to keep up morale when you’re looking for a job. And so often we forget what we are talented at because rejection makes us feel totally un-talented.

The act of telling someone what you miss about them reminds them that they are valuable in the workplace. And it also gives you a little boost, because practicing gratitude increases your happiness by 25%. In fact, being grateful for what you have makes you happier than any job could, which is something you can remember when you’re the one who is laid off.

109 replies
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  1. Mike
    Mike says:


    Great post. I have a family member looking for work and I can't tell you how much #1 "Don't ask – €˜how's the job hunt?' applies. Follow recommendation #2 "Ask about extracurriculars" and if there is anything good to report on the job front, it will be volunteered.


  2. Traingolfguy
    Traingolfguy says:

    Thanks for the timely post, Penelope. A couple of my extremely talented decades-long coworkers just got cut from my company. They are the latest in a long string of layoffs. There will be many more, very likely including myself. Thanks for helping us out.

  3. Jun
    Jun says:

    Penelope’s posts have been getting a lot better since she stopped blogging about the farmer (and trying, in vain, to force-fit life lessons into those stories). I’m back being an avid reader again and happy about it.

  4. Anon
    Anon says:

    I’m a lesbian gloating over all the fact that all the gold-digging straight women whose rich husbands have lost their jobs now can’t get their twice weekly mani-pedis. Guess what? Lesbians have been living frugally for years. Because women still make at least 15% less than men in the workplace, and the only ones up until this point who have tried to change it, by and large, are we–because you straight women are too busy taking long lunches and blathering about whether you look fat. Live like a lesbian for a while. Bring your lunch. Put cheap cuts of meat in a slow cooker and call it dinner. Buy a used car. Network with other women instead of treating them like competitors. And look at your own capabilities for once. Maybe after a while you won’t see “feminism” as something awful. Finally, GET A JOB.

  5. Faryal Humayun
    Faryal Humayun says:

    Experts say losing a job is one of the top three stressors for a person, and with the current global economic scenario, there are a lot of stressed out people out there right now. Losing a job hurts. What to do to fight the stress is a topic that needs attention. It’s a well timely post.

  6. Ruth Furman
    Ruth Furman says:

    I loved this post. I own a PR/marketing firm and have come in contact with many, many friends and contacts who have lost their jobs in the last six months. It’s staggering. I try to be a good friend and good resource to those I know, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or how to best help those we care about in this situation. Your tips are fabulous. One tip I’ll add is, when asked, to urge friends to be specific in their intent. How can we help someone who continually asks for help and advice but can’t articulate what they want to do or what type of job they are seeking? I have one friend who has had great success in her search because she’s so specific. And another – just the opposite.

  7. Terry
    Terry says:

    Thank you for this very valuable post. While on vacation last month, I met a bunch of people who’d paid to go away, and then had suddenly been laid off.

    During the recession of the 1970s, my father was laid off for a long time, and I remember how scared we all were. When you’re spending your nights staring at the ceiling in panic, it’s important to have supportive friends.

    Thanks for the reminder on how to be that friend.

  8. Marie
    Marie says:

    OMG!!!! Thank you!!! Finally some common sense. The stupid things people want to talk about are incredible. I was working out and a sort of gym buddy, turned to me and said “you know it’s going to take over a year for you to find a job….” I was like WTF???? Like I don’t worry about that? That I’m not staring at the ceiling all night long thinking that? You want to give me help – make me dinner and tell me that don’t bring wine because you have plenty and compliment me on my new retro/hip used clothing look. Or give me a job lead.

    When talking to the unemployed – DON’T give advice, unless it’s something tangible, like a lead, or a reference. If you can’t and want to help. Homemade dinner without buying something is greatly appreciated. Or doing something free that doesn’t make the person feel like they have to dish out money or are a hired date.

  9. SM
    SM says:

    I’m tired of hearing how other people think they can ‘create the perfect job’ for me, based on how they think I can apply my skills. Just no. I prefer to spend my time rebuilding my current business, which is one that I love.

    Also, telling me you understand my pain at being laid off 5+ months ago — just because you went through a job search four years ago when the economy was still rosy — doesn’t hold any value to me. If you know what it’s like to consistently face a minimum of 100, and sometimes as many as 1000+, other competitors for the same client/job, for a skilled position, in the worst recession in over 20 years, then let’s talk.

    The point about offering up a contact is something I wish more people would practice.

    I really wish people with jobs and large amounts of disposable income would stop flaunting it. I really don’t want to hear about your problem deciding which lovely hotel in Tuscany to choose, or reading on facebook about that posh restaurant (that even your working friends gasp over the extravagance of) that you have reservations at.

  10. makarska
    makarska says:

    I laid myself off in March 2007. But even in that tough time I found a job working at Makarska real estate agency. Here’s 2 great tips I learned from that time.

    1. Don’t get lazy, start drinking or something even more stupid. Those people took a LOT longer to find a job than the guys who approached their time off with these tips.

    2. Make sure you spend at least 30% of every day trying to find a job. Search the web for work.

  11. Dubrovnik
    Dubrovnik says:

    I think the best way to talk to your friend when you see hes laid off is showing hem with an example and then with few words of encouragement.

    Mark from sunny Croatia !

  12. david
    david says:

    “One of the hardest things about being laid off is keeping up in one’s industry.”

    Don’t agree with this at all. When I’m working I’m always dealing with the same (small) group of people every day and working with the same (small) group of technologies, so it can be very hard to keep tabs on what is going on in the world outside my cubicle.

    But when I’m interviewing I typically talk to a dozen or more different people in very different environments within my industry every day–so I very quickly learn what the new trends are in my industry. Even if one interview goes badly it never fails to teach me something that I need to learn for the next interview.

  13. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    On the insurance thing: if you get laid off or fired and you had health insurance while you were working, call the insurance company directly to find out whether you can convert the group policy to an individual policy, and if so, what it will cost.

    I just got laid off effective May 31, 2011, and I contacted my insurance company before my health care benefits ended to find out what that would cost. The cost difference per month between converting my existing group policy to an individual policy (I’m single with no children) and COBRA was $500/month for the same exact insurance.

    Nobody told me I could do that – had it not been for a friend of mine who suggested that I look for an individual policy for myself, I would never have even thought to ask what other options were available.

  14. daniel rivers
    daniel rivers says:

    Hopefully health insurance will move down on the list of worries for the laid off in the next year or so. An industry contact specific to skill set helps a bunch compared to a new but general contact.

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