We had a round of layoffs at work last week. I’ve seen way too many of those. I’ve been one of the layoffs in too many of those, but not this time. If you’re wondering what to say to a coworker who was laid off, read on. Unfortunately I have experience in this area.
It was painful to watch. There were lots of tears, lots of glassy eyes, some denial, some apathy, and even a bit of acceptance. One day, someone walked around to every affected cubicle and wrote “You belong here” on the whiteboard. You can look at it like a sign of solidarity or like some kind of crazy reverse passover, depending on whether you were one of the affected.
I’ve made an effort to seek out the affected people I knew. It seemed like my duty.
I heard a song on the radio the day before it happened. I don’t know the title or the artist, but I remember two lines from it: “God, why don’t you do something? And He said, ‘I already did! I created you!'”
There’s something to that sometimes. This is one of them.
One of my soon-to-be former coworkers said I’m the only person from my department who’s said anything to her. That’s no surprise. But that’s not out of malice or apathy. I know they care. They told me so. I’m sure the main thing is that they have no idea what to say.
In my case, where to start isn’t hard. I’ve been laid off more than once, and once I left a job and my successor got laid off a few months later. It was a financial decision each time, but it didn’t necessarily feel like it when it happened. So I generally start with that. Then I add that I always have found work within a few weeks. In this case, they have about eight weeks left before their last day, so hearing that eight weeks is long enough to find another job is comforting. And I can truthfully say I’ve never been out of work for eight weeks.
I also offer help. Having been laid off before, I know many of the area recruiters. Since I’m a consultant right now, I actually work for a company that places people. I gave them the name of my company and another company that does a good job of placing people. In a city the size of St. Louis, you’ll miss opportunities if you only talk to one consulting company. We talk a bit about resumes and cover letters. I’ve told several of them to take the job description of any job they apply for, and speak to every bullet in the job description. If you don’t have on-the-job experience with that bullet, talk about volunteer experience, or having an interest in it. Then go learn enough about it to be able to speak intelligently about it if they ask about it during an interview.
I offer to proofread their resumes if they want. I’m pretty good at finding mistakes in resumes. So are HR departments, and they generally use that as a method of thinning the pile of resumes they get, so it’s better if I find the mistake. If you have nothing else to offer, offer that.
But even if you can’t relate at all, there’s still something you can say that matters. It matters a lot. The very most important thing you can say is that you give a crap. Because I guarantee that when they went and talked to HR, that wasn’t the vibe that they got. HR is going to fulfill its legal obligations and not make any promises that it can’t keep, and it’s going to feel cold.
After hearing that, it feels pretty good when a coworker comes to them and simply acts like a human being who has a soul. I can guarantee that.
Sometimes there are other things you can do too. If you have a heavy job title or enough letters behind your name to impress someone, and you know the person well enough, write a letter of recommendation. Or offer to be a reference. They can’t get another job without good references, so that’s a simple thing you can do to help.
But even if you’re not in the position to do that, just stopping by and saying you know it was a financial decision, you know the person did good work and you’re sorry it was them will help. It can help a lot. One or two people making that simple gesture can be the difference between a bad day and a bearable day.
That’s what to say to a coworker who was laid off — or at least what I recommend. And I hope you will.