Given the current economic climate, most of us know someone who has lost a job since the start of the recession. Last January, the Washington Post reported that 2.1 million workers were fired last year in massive layoffs (affecting 50 or more workers), the second-highest figure since U.S. Department of Labor began collecting this data. Small businesses haven’t been exempt either, many folding or downsizing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) increased by 433,000 to 4.4 million between last May and June.
While the large majority of these losses aren’t “personal” (e.g. based on an individual’s non-performance), when someone you care about is downsized, let go, or forced to retire, it is no longer a matter of numbers. It is upfront and personal. Aside from a downward economic spiral, unemployment is associated with increased stress, sleep loss, and depression. While friends may be less able to “fix” someone’s employment situation, per se, there are things they can do to help a friend deal with the emotional trauma of being fired. Yet many people, even close friends, feel uncomfortable; they aren’t sure what to say or do, so they withdraw and do nothing. Yet, these are times when the support of friends can be instrumental in enabling someone to better cope with a difficult situation. Here are a few suggestions for helping a friend who has been fired:
1) Be there: Listen to what happened. Let your friend tell her story. Don’t pry unnecessarily. Follow her lead in determining how much she wants to tell you. Don’t recite all the grim unemployment statistics she’s already been bombarded with by the media. Tell her that you’re sorry and will do what you can to help.
2) Follow his lead: Losing a job is a little like losing a loved one. People go through stages from anger to acceptance. Don’t try to talk your friend out of his feelings. Don’t tell him know how he feels because you really can’t put yourself in his shoes.
3) Reach out: If she hasn’t told you about her job loss directly—perhaps you saw it on her profile on Facebook or LinkedIn, or you learned about it from a mutual friend—give her a call or send her an email acknowledging the loss. True friends don’t pretend not to know about bad things. Recognize that it may be hard for her to repeat the same story to everyone she knows.
4) Offer concrete help: Do you have networking ideas to share? Job leads? Can you help your friend brainstorm or reinvent his career? Offer to edit or proofread his resume. Research whether there’s a job support group or pink slip party locally that your friend could attend.
5) Don’t be cloyingly annoying: Stay in touch. Email or call regularly but don’t come on too strong or too often. There’s nothing more annoying than being constantly asked if you’ve found a job yet. Wait for your friend to tell you the good news.
6) Distract him: Remind your friend that there are other aspects of life beyond work. Offer to join him for a walk or invite him over for dinner. Remember that your friend is on a tight budget so don’t propose anything extravagant.
7) Offer her a bridge loan: Many people say that friends and money don’t mix, but if you can afford it and she really needs it—and she’s a close friend—offer a modest loan to help tide her over this rough period. Just make sure that it isn’t money that you can’t do without yourself.
8) Don’t wallow in guilt: If you worked with the person, you may experience a profound sense of guilt that he was axed and you were left behind—survivor’s guilt. Recognize that you aren’t responsible for his termination. While you can be helpful and supportive, you need to draw limits.
9) Watch for signs of (emotional) depression: With a sinking economy, it’s tough to find a new job. Like beautiful houses that remain on the market, capable people remain unemployed for months and years. Recognize that extended unemployment takes an emotional toll. If your friend seems very distressed, tell someone close to her (perhaps a relative) and/or suggest that she seek professional help.
Yes, it’s awkward to console someone who has just lost her job but everyone needs a little nurturance from their friends, especially at times like this. Think about what you would want if you were in the same situation.
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a psychologist, freelance journalist, and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and recently completed a book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend (Overlook Press, September, 2009) and recently co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). She also blogs about friendship at The Friendship Blog (www.TheFriendshipBlog).