What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Been Laid Off

The news media paint a very sad image of what it's like to be laid off from a job, and depressing unemployment offices don't exactly help this perception of layoffs as pitiable. Nor do friends and family members who don't know what to say to someone who been laid off. Too often, instead of letting people feel how they feel about a layoff and go about whatever process they must to figure out their next step, others' comments express either pity or unrealistic expectations.

I would know. About a year ago, I was laid off from a company along with 80 percent of the staff — a very common event where I was working in Silicon Valley. In fact, I just found out one of my former co-workers was also laid off from his latest software engineering job. This is a risk you take when you enter the tech startup world.

But I didn't have the devastated reaction you're supposed to have when you lose a job. Instead, I felt free. After all, I had been unhappy at my job but didn't feel entitled to quit before putting a year in. (Career counselors often say, "stay at least a year for your resume," and I call B.S. on that now because not one interviewer ever asked me "Why were you only at your last job for eight months?") The layoff gave me an excuse to leave without breaking any rules. It also gave me the time and passive income to pursue the writing I had dedicated myself to on nights and weekends.

Unfortunately, others tried to write my experience for me. They assumed I was sad and needed help. They also assumed I needed to find another job just like the one I had, pitying me for doing something different. Some didn't even understand what being laid off meant, believing I must have done something wrong to lose my job.

Here are some things you should never say to somebody who has just been laid off if you would like to understand and help them. What should you say, then? You don't actually have to say anything. You can ask them questions about the experience and their goals, but treat them as you normally would. They may not need your help as much as you think.

1. "What did you do to get yourself fired?"

Being laid off and being fired are very, very different. When someone is fired, it is usually because the company or job role wasn't a fit for them or because they did something to displease their higher-ups, like slack off on a project or, horrifyingly in one case, report sexual harassment.

A layoff, on the other hand, is when somebody loses their job because that job role simply does not exist anymore. That may happen because the company is relocating, because the company is going in a different direction (or "pivoting," as tech startups love to say), or (most likely, even if they don't put it this way) because the company simply doesn't have the budget to keep paying all its employees. There's only one way in which a layoff has anything to do with any individual: If your job role happens to be essential to the company's future plans, you may be safe. But people do not get laid off because they've done anything wrong.

2. "Are you OK?"

This question implies that someone who has been laid off wouldn't be OK, promoting a rather bleak view of their situation and future. People think this way perhaps because media coverage of job losses often paints them as inherently bad (and understandably so, since they are often tied to the recession, which itself is bad). But they can also present new opportunities, and those may take up more space in a person's mind than any loss associated with the layoff.

Contrary to the stereotypical image of people losing their jobs and stumbling home downtrodden, here's how it went down at my company: The CEO let us know what was happening, we filled out some papers so we could collect unemployment and severance pay (which can quell financial fears associate with being laid off for at least a few months afterward), we ate cupcakes and cookies HR had brought (probably out of guilt), we went out to a bar and got drinks on the CEO's tab (once again, probably out of guilt), and then some of us went rock climbing the next day. Nobody who was with us at the time would have asked, "Are you OK?"

I understand that most of us didn't have families to support, and I understand that not everybody laid off is working in Silicon Valley, where jobs are relatively abundant and people often have marketable skills. A layoff might be distressing to someone, especially if they have a lot of expenses, but people get to define their own experiences, no matter what those experiences are.

3. "It's so inspiring that you're maintaining a good attitude."

The idea that certain people are "inspiring" usually assumes they are below you. Think about it: If you believe it is inspiring just for someone to have a positive attitude, you must believe something is terribly wrong with their lives that would make such positivity difficult. But there isn't always. Sometimes, our positive attitudes are genuine. We're not finding the silver lining; we just don't see a cloud in the first place.

4. "Any interviews lined up yet?"

Being laid off gives you an opportunity to think about what you want to do next, and often, unemployment benefits and severance pay allow you to support yourself while you take time to figure that all out. Granted, this compensation is often less than you might make when you're employed, so not everyone can survive off it for a long time. But in my case, I could, yet people still showed an irrational urgency for me to get a new job. I internalized this scrambling mentality, applying to jobs I didn't even want, which impeded my process of learning what actually excited me.

And let me just offer a gentle reminder that Rome was not built in a day. Even in the tech world, the job market in this country is extremely difficult. A shocking number of highly educated Millennials are jobless, and lining up an interview is no easy feat. While it may seem worrisome that your friend or child or parent hasn't found another job for two months, career professionals say most job searches take at least three months. Even though most of my former co-workers were skilled software engineers in Silicon Valley, I can't think of any who got another job within two months.

5. "You'll find something!"

You don't know this. Most people who are laid of do find something else, but one in five do not find anything within five years of their layoff. Don't tell people things you don't know just to make them feel better; it can backfire when your assertion is proven wrong.

Beyond not always being true, this phrase also comes off dismissive, as if to say, "You're not entitled to feel worried or down about this. Let's talk about something else now." The truth is, even if someone will find something — and even if there are upsides to their unemployment — it can still be a drag to deal with constant job applications and unemployment papers and unprecedented amounts of home alone when you're used to a routine. The same way it doesn't help to tell people they should be sad, it doesn't help to tell them they should be happy.

6. "There's a job opening for your former role at a similar company."

Within a few months after I was laid off, I was so excited to make the leap I'd been wanting to make and support myself as a full-time freelance writer. But some people didn't consider the possibility that I could ever want to do something other than content marketing for a tech company. When I tried to tell my former co-workers about my recent accomplishments, some behaved as if I were still unemployed, letting me know about opportunities to get back into what I was doing.

The fact that someone didn't quit doesn't necessarily mean they were happy with their job. Instead of assuming someone wants to replicate the job they were laid off from, listen to what they want.

Actually, this whole list could be summed up by: Listen. Don't assume how people feel or what they want based on popular scripts of layoffs and unemployment. Ask them about their hopes and dreams, and then listen.

Images: Courtesy of K2 Space; Giphy (6)