My 37-year gig in corporate America came to an abrupt halt earlier this summer when I was laid off from a large dysfunctional company we'll call "DysCo". For background, check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
Today in the 4th installment of "Corporate Life in the Rearview Mirror", we deal with the inevitable consequence of modern business: seeing your colleagues, friends, family members, and neighbors getting laid off.
Even when the handwriting on the wall is in two-foot block letters, and the Grim Reaper's pacing the halls, and we know that our number will probably be called this time around, nothing really prepares us for the dreaded moment. We're asked to report to some conference room on another floor. Someone will meet you at the elevator and walk you over.
Uh, oh. This is it. Your heart pounding, you grab a pen and some paper, try to compose yourself, and head in for your execution. Your boss is there, along with some hand-puppet from "human resources" and you get your "package", since there's never any transaction that can't benefit from a bunch more paperwork. Stunned, you return to your desk to prepare your laptop and Blackberry for surrender.
Already, the whispers start within earshot. Once laid off, no matter how important or valuable or well-liked you might have been, you're dead meat. Like it or not, the shunning has begun.
Like the recently deceased in the movie "Beetle Juice", the recently laid-off inhabit a different world. Our grief at having our job, our livelihood, and our identity torn from us is real, palpable, and distressing to others. Nobody wants to risk the possibility that our malady is contagious.
As with the recently bereaved, nobody knows what to say. Yes, the greeting card industry has stepped up to help fill this void, given their success in the condolence card market. Still, there will be occasions when you encounter a recently laid-off colleague, friend, or family member who could really benefit from your compassion. So: what can you say?
Please follow along below the cloud of despair for your intrepid and recently laid-off diarists suggestions on things to to say, and things not to say.
Things To Say
"I'm so sorry."
This universal statement of empathy is fine all by itself and always the proper thing to say. With a hug, it's even better. Much better.
"I can't believe it. After all you've done, I never imagined they'd let you go."
This is nice, as long as you don't lay it on too thick. After all, many fine people get laid off. The week I was let go, I was one of hundred of people just in part of the US. I'm sure that they were all smart, hardworking people who gave the company their best effort but were nonetheless tossed into the volcano.
"Please feel free to use me as a reference."This is always welcome, especially as company policy at DysCo and many major companies is the they won't provide any references at all for their laid off employees. All they will give out is dates you worked there, and your title. This is what happens when Human Resources is run by the attorneys. So, yes, offering to serve as a reference is a wonderful gesture.
"My brother-in-law/neighbor/room-mate/daughter works at [name of a competitor] and they've been looking for new people. I'd be happy to give them a copy of your resume and maybe they can get you in to meet the right folks."This is a nice gesture, but keep in mind that you can't guarantee that third parties will follow up. Still, if the laid-off person wants to find a new job, they will appreciate leads that might not be found through traditional sources.
"Listen, give me your personal e-mail address and a number where I can call you. I'll give you a call at home next week. Let's get together for lunch, my treat."This is great... if you really intend to follow through (see below for the flip side...)
Things Not To Say
"Well, this might actually work out well for you. Now you can take the whole summer off!"Uh, no. Whatever's next in my career will require that I put every ounce of energy into finding - or creating - a new job. This is not my idea of a vacation. Indeed, if I'd planned a costly vacation, I might have to cancel it.
"Well, you know what they say... when one door closes, another door opens."I'm sure this comment is well intentioned, but really? What if the door that closed was a trap door, and I fell through and broke both ankles? Sometimes when one door closes, you wander for ages getting other doors slammed in your face. This sort of upbeat platitude isn't very helpful.
"You had to have known this was coming, right?"Well, there's no right answer for this. Either I did know it was coming, but I'm still - foolishly - reeling from the shock, or I didn't know it was coming, but everyone else did, in which case I'm a chump... A chump without a job.
"Oh, my God! How in the world are we going to get the ABC Manufacturing report done without you? We were already up against the wall on schedule!!"Well, that's really no longer my problem, is it? If DysCo wanted me to finish it, they could have let me stay. If they want me to come back and work on it, they know how to reach me about a contract employee deal. But the way I'm feeling right now, I'd probably tell them to go pound sand.
"Listen, I'll call you next week. We can get together for lunch."Please don't say this unless you mean it. One thing that the newly laid-off learn right away is who our real friends are. Sadly, most of the folks who helped us haul our stuff out to your car will never call us or e-mail us. It's nothing against them, just the way things work.
"At least your husband/wife still works, so you'll be okay."I know, I know... you're looking for that silver lining, but the problem isn't our spouse or their job. It's our creditors who still expect to be paid. We know that things could be worse, but right now, they're bad enough.
"With your skills and credentials, you'll have no trouble finding a job! I'm not worried at all!This sounds good, but having been laid off before, some of us know full well that even in the best case, it's likely still a matter of months at best before we find another position. If we're "seasoned" employees, it will take even longer. You might not be worried, but we are, and with good reason.
Whatever you do, please don't shun the recently laid-off. Their condition is not contagious. They're just like you, only grieving and in pain.
Speak from your heart. If words aren't your thing, take action. Meet up with them. Treat them to lunch or or a movie. Treat them to a day at the spa, a trip to the beach, or ballgame. Offer to watch their kids or to help with their resume. Offer them the use of your lakeside cottage for a weekend. You'll think of something.
My hope is that you'll spare no mercies where the newly laid-off are concerned. We're all in this together.