When Your Colleague Is Suddenly LET GO

Statistics show the US economy is in fine shape. Unemployment has reached historic lows. Yet GE announced just last week it is cutting 12,000 positions. 4% of its workforce. Siemens is cutting 6,900 jobs. Several folks I know well have lost their jobs within the last few weeks.

December. Holiday season. A hyper-challenging time of the year to suddenly be without work.

What do we say to a friend or colleague who has just been let go? What’s the most decent and helpful response? Especially as holiday fever reaches its pitch?

My first instinct, I notice, is to pivot into positive thinking, and all sorts of banalities suddenly want to tumble out of my mouth. Just know that this is a blessing in disguise. You’re so good at what you do, you will find a great job in no time.

Not so fast. Someone just experienced a loss. Even if she saw it coming, even if he had complained to you about everything that was wrong at work. Two forces will likely collude the moment a colleague tells us he’s been let go. Our discomfort with the messiness of life, especially at holiday time. And the pressure she may feel to not be “a downer” for others. Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of a very fake conversation.

Don’t want to be fake? Here are a few guidelines to consider when a colleague tells you of a sudden job loss:

  1. Acknowledge the loss

Your colleague may signal that he’s fine with the separation. She may reassure you that the severance package is generous. Both may be true, but be mindful. Losing a job is a major life loss. It simply is. It disrupts daily routines. It stops cash flow. It invokes anxiety. It’s a loss. Acknowledge it like a loss. Say you’re sorry for their loss. Let them know that you “get it.”

The don’ts: Don’t go on and on about how sorry you are. Say it once and stop. You may be itching to probe into the mechanics of how they were informed of the job separation. Don’t. Replaying the blow-by-blow minutiae serves no purpose. And resist the temptation to trash-talk the employer. Chances are, very real reasons, whether you agree with them or not, prompted the firing.

  1. Ask how they feel

A loss triggers emotions. A question about how the other person is feeling will take the conversation beyond platitudes. If asking how someone feels isn’t your thing, ask it differently. How are you doing? More conversational, but it opens the door. If he is ready to talk about his more personal reactions to the job loss he will. If she isn’t she’ll steer the chat in a different direction. Either way, be ready to be surprised. Their emotional response may not be what you thought it would be!

  1. Offer help

Chances are, there is little you can do to help. On the very deepest level we experience, and move through, a loss alone. But how comforting it is to know that someone is willing to help. The offer alone may be the momentary lift we need right then and there. The notion that help is available is potent. Or you may be greeted by a simple and unexpected request. Hey, let’s grab a beer after work. Why not?

  1. Choose to stay connected

Let’s stay in touch. Let me know where you end up. More of the sort of platitudes we’re likely to utter in the heat of the unanticipated conversation. Sometimes heartfelt as we utter them. Often not followed up. Take swift action. Instead of waiting for your just fired colleague to reach out to you, choose to initiate. Establish contact with her on LinkedIn. Ask to be friends on Facebook. If you two are already connected on your preferred social media outlets, use these channels to send a personal note. Platitudes may sound good. A simple gesture mean more.

At its best, an unexpected job loss invokes our humanity. It reminds us that beyond delivering a project on time and exceeding performance metrics, work is a temporary collaboration between humans. In a moment of sudden separation, honor the human. Avoid the platitudes. Stay present.

The difference will be felt.

If you like this article, you may enjoy this related post: Dual-Track Your Conversations.