- Carrie Skowronski is a workplace communication expert who says there’s a right way to reach out to a laid off colleague.
- She says peppering them with questions about their next steps will only stress them further.
- To show your support, reach out, follow up via email or text, and tap into a shared experience if you have one.
Your company has joined many others in conducting layoffs, and while your job is safe, you’ve had to watch your close colleagues fall from the ranks. Now you’re racking your brain for ways to show up for them in their time of need.
While you may be wrestling over the “right” thing to say to someone who’s recently unemployed, what matters most is supporting them with empathy and sensitivity in this sudden career transition.
Seasoned HR and workplace communication expert Carrie Skowronski shared with Insider what to say and do — and what not to say and do — to someone who’s been laid off or fired, and the email or text template for best expressing your condolences.
1. Don’t be overly positive or ask, ‘What’s next?’
While they may stem from good intentions, doses of too much positivity — comments like “Look on the bright side!” — almost never have the desired impact and will seem tone-deaf to someone who’s unsure of their next move.
It’s also important to avoid pressuring them to reveal how they’re feeling or their plan for the future. Your immediate instinct may be to ask, “What are you going to do?” “Are you going to be OK?” or “What’s next for you?” It’s very likely that your colleague is already mulling over these questions, and projecting from your own place of worry could stress them out even more.
“Don’t put them on the spot to now have to comfort you in their time of need. Instead, leave unhelpful questions at the door (or in your drafts),” Skowronski said.
2. Don’t assume you know how they feel
It’s incredibly difficult to predict how people will react to the shock of job loss. While losing a job can be scary and stressful, some people might feel a sense of relief to be let go from a role at a company that was no longer a positive work experience for them.
“Empathy is not about feeling bad for someone, it’s about holding space and allowing others to experience a range of emotions,” Skowronski said. Whatever feelings arise, stay committed to validating your colleague exactly where they are now. If they do express disappointment, allow them space to voice those negative emotions.
Something as simple as, “I’m so sorry. I know this is really hard and coming at a bad time,” can go a very long way in making people feel seen and heard, Skowronski added.
On the other hand, if your colleague is thrilled to have newfound freedom to do things like enjoy a mid-day spin class, visit a museum with no crowds, or spend quality time with their kids, there’s no need to rob them of that joy by forcing a discussion about the burden of a job search.
3. Tap into a shared experience
Given that job loss is a very common experience, another way to demonstrate empathy is to tap into your sense of “common humanity,” Skowronski said.
Been laid off yourself? Don’t be afraid to share that experience and make your colleague feel less alone. Skowronski suggested extending an opportunity for conversation by saying, “Let me know if you want to talk to someone who’s been through it and understands.”
Once it’s time to actually have this conversation, “Be sure not to compare your experience or attempt to one-up your colleague with your own layoff story,” Skowronski added.
4. Show appreciation for the value they added
It’s very normal to feel self-conscious and question your competence after losing your job, no matter the circumstances. Acknowledge your coworker’s contributions and offer examples of how they helped you out or showcased a valuable skill. They’ll be left with some much-needed validation and a chance to look back on their tenure with satisfaction and closure.
5. Get the conversation started over message
Email or text is a great place to start when reaching out to someone who’s lost their job. Here’s what it might look like:
Hi [name of colleague],
I’m so disappointed to hear this news. I want you to know I truly came to appreciate your expertise and learned a ton from our partnership. I’m just one text message away if you ever want to grab a coffee or need a sounding board. When you’re feeling ready for your next opportunity, I would be happy to connect you with anyone in my network.
6. Follow up
Losing a job may be a single event, but recovering and moving on from it is a gradual transition, and people still need care and support weeks and even months afterward as emotions flow in and out.
To be a continuous source of support for your colleague, Skowronski suggested shooting them a brief check-in message, such as:
“Hey there! You’ve been on my mind. How are you doing today?”
The keyword here is today — because the emotions following job loss are bound to evolve day-to-day, and gauging how your colleague feels in this moment will help you better support them.
Leaning on a network is crucial to getting through a tough time in one’s career. You may not have all of the answers that someone’s looking for after their job loss, but your genuine support can go a long way.