When someone you work with loses their job or is fired, it can turn their life upside down. But the ripple effects of this destabilizing event can also impact you and everyone else who worked alongside them. Someone you saw and talked to every day was there one moment and gone the next.
In the immediate aftermath of a colleague’s job loss, you face a choice or two: Do you reach out to them? And if so, how do you do it sensitively?
The answers depends on your relationship. It can feel awkward to reach out when you still are working with the company and they’re not, but it’s good to step outside of yourself and put yourself in their shoes.
Here’s what unemployment experts and therapists advise you to consider before you contact a former co-worker:
If you’re work friends, it’s very likely they will really appreciate your message. This is when they most need support.
Just because the job ended doesn’t mean the relationship needs to, if you are genuinely friends.
“People can feel an even bigger sense of betrayal if people that they worked very closely with suddenly shun them,” said career coach Bryan Creely. Creely once went through a layoff while working as a corporate recruiter, and a colleague he’d worked closely with helped him feel a bit better by sending a message.
“It took him a little while, but he reached out to me later on and said, ‘Hey, you’re really great to work with. You were one of the best. I wish I had a spot on my team for you. But if I can offer you any assistance, I have a big network of people I can help connect you with,’” Creely said. “Even though I didn’t need his help with the networking, just … the recognizing that I was valued helped.”
“People can feel an even bigger sense of betrayal if people that they worked very closely with suddenly shun them.”
– Career coach Bryan Creely
Friends reach out to each other in times of need, and losing a job can be an isolating, humiliating experience. This is when your work friend needs to know you’ll be there for them. If you worked closely with someone, Creely said, you should reach out within a few days. Waiting two months is poor form.
“If you consider this individual a friend and want to remain friends, I would recommend you reach out to them,” echoed Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counseling in Illinois and Wisconsin. “It’s a pretty big life event to ignore if you plan to continue a friendship despite not working together anymore.”
Keep your message brief and then follow their lead. “A simple ‘I’ve been thinking of you’ can go a long way,” Garcia said. “It opens the door to more conversation if they want, but if they are not ready to talk in depth, you aren’t badgering them with questions about it.“
You also can offer to grab drinks or dinner.
“One thing that happens when you lose your job is you also lose all your work friends. For a lot of people, that’s been a major part of their social life,” said Ofer Sharone, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who studies career transitions and long-term unemployment. “I think offering to just socially hang out can also be an important form of support.”
Sharone noted that if you do make this offer, you should be mindful that money may now be a big concern for your former colleague, and offer free options as well, such as a walk or a park hangout.
If you’re somewhere between acquaintance and a friend, there are cases in which you should probably wait a bit or stay silent.
If you weren’t close with the person who lost their job, Garcia said it can depend whether or not your message will be welcomed.
“One way to figure this out is to put yourself in their shoes. If you lost your job and didn’t hear from this same person, how would you feel?” she said. “Your answer will tell you a lot about your relationship and what they may be expecting from you as well.”
If you are in this category of relationship, wait a day or two for “the dust to settle” before you reach out, Garcia said. Creely said waiting a month to reach out to someone in your broader network is “probably OK.”
But whether or not you are close, don’t wait too long and don’t linger on the whys or hows of the termination.
Not knowing how to bring up the fact that someone lost their job may hold you back from reaching out at all. But don’t get bogged down by the details if you want to be supportive.
Even if you heard someone’s job loss was a performance-based firing, Sharone cautioned that you, as an outsider, almost never really know the details of what happened, and that shouldn’t stop you from reaching out in most cases. “I would just assume you don’t know the full story,” he said.
Instead, if you want to send a tactful message of support, focus on what you do know about them. “If you worked with this person for a while, you do know something about their value and what they can bring. Focus on that,” Sharone said.
Reaching out can feel awkward, but it feels worse if you don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. “Avoid toxic positivity at all costs,” Garcia recommended. “Saying things like ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is simply not helpful and does not validate what the individual is going through. Losing a job sucks. It’s OK to say just that.“
Creely recommended acknowledging that you are reaching out because the person lost their job, without getting into specifics.
You could say, “‘Hey, I hear you’re no longer with the company. I’m sad about it … I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy working with you. If there’s something that you need or would like to talk, here’s my phone number,’” he said. “That way you’re not necessarily saying, ‘Hey, I heard you got fired.’”
Sharone suggests simply asking “How can I best support you?” and see what they say.
If they want help with their job search, know that one of the most helpful things you can do is to introduce them to people in your professional networks that could help them get a new job. That’s because after someone has been out of work for six months, they are considered “long-term unemployed” and research shows it becomes significantly harder to get a job.
“The quicker you can help someone get back in[to the workforce], the more likely they can avoid being trapped in long-term unemployment,” Sharone said. “That’s why I’m saying you don’t need to wait. You can reach out right away and try to offer support.”