What happens when a longtime friend and coworker unexpectedly gets laid off? You are hit with a wave of emotions. What comes next? Are you on the chopping block as well? How should you handle your coworker? The situation? The organization?

Whether you are weeks into a job or have been loyal to the same company for years, friendships with co-workers develop at work. Relationships build as you co-exist within teams and across departments within your organization. You share stories, cross-reference issues, collectively come up with solutions to help each other, work similar hours, and experience the job with other people. You become friends in many cases.

What happens to the relationship when one of your close co-workers gets laid off? 

A group of diverse employees avoiding a coworker in a coffee shop after she has been laid off

In many instances the friendships, support, encouragement, story-telling, and communication slows down and may even come to a halt. The awkwardness of the situation prevails, and you begin walking on eggshells around the person, trying to avoid a disastrous ending to the relationship. 

At a time when the friend needs you the most, you’re not there. It’s awkward. You aren’t sure what to say or when to say something. You are saddened and disheartened by the loss. Furthermore, you’re not sure what the person needs at this time, and you’re afraid of making a mistake, so you don’t ask. You might even feel guilty that you still have your job, and the guilt causes you to avoid the issue and the person.

According to Zippia Research, 15.4 million people were laid off in 2022.  That’s significantly lower than the 41.7 million that were laid off in 2020 as a result of the 2019 pandemic. However, 15.4 million people have lost jobs, are going through life-changing experiences, and are in search of new opportunities. 

As Scarlett McCarthy wrote in Working Not Working Magazine, dated November 2020, “there needs to be a discussion around the etiquette of layoffs. It’s time we talked about what we can do to make a coworker’s layoff as comfortable as possible. Because radio silence from people whom you spent the majority of your waking life with feels like a dismissal of your personhood.”

Two longtime friends and coworkers hugging after one has been laid off and has packed up her office

When you find yourself in this situation, here are some tips.  

Be Proactive

Your coworker has just gone through a life-changing loss. There is a grieving process. They need your support and encouragement, the same way you provided it when you helped each other through other prior work, or life crises.  

Reach out and be proactive. Even if they don’t immediately accept it, they’ll return later when ready for your support. They’ll be appreciative that you initiated, even if they can’t express their gratitude.

Continue to foster the friendship and strengthen the relationship. If you were only friends within the boundaries of work, allow the relationship to expand. You will learn from your friend’s new situation. New opportunities for solution-based thinking and growth will work their way into future conversations.

Work Through the Awkward

It feels awkward at first, but with time the original relationship resurfaces.  If the relationship was formed with respect and a genuine interest in each other, it will surely last through adversity.  

You may have to work through your own awkward feelings of guilt, fear and sadness. There is nothing you can do about your co-worker’s situation, and you still must perform your own responsibilities, and those with the teams you lead. Continue to perform your job to the best of your ability and separate it from your coworker’s situation.  

One coworker with his arm around a longtime friend and coworker just being present with him in the office

Be a listening ear 

Be present for your coworker. They are probably in search of a listening ear who will understand their point of view without judgment. Be available and withhold all judgment about the organization and your coworker.

The sooner the person vents and grieves, the sooner they will get back to searching and preparing for the next opportunity.  

You don’t have to know all the answers, nor do you need to choose sides. Just allow the person to vent, grieve, and to process.

Everyone’s journey, through a lay-off, is different. We all handle adversity in our own authentic ways, and some folks work through challenges faster than others. But most people work through it better with the support and encouragement from friends.

Answer the call

Next, help them come up with solutions to move forward.  What is needed and what can be done next?

Do they need a friend?  Do they need time? Maybe they need a mental professional? How about helping rewrite a resume or organizing a portfolio?

Whatever they need, be there for them. There are obvious limits, as you have your own family and work responsibilities, but show empathy and be willing to assist them through this challenging time.  

African American man with a coffee in his hand, a smile on his face while looking at a message on his phone, after being laid off

Help the person get connected 

Help the person find their next opportunity. Stay in the hunt with them. Connect them with your contacts that might be able to assist with finding a new job or further connecting them to new opportunities. You never know what a simple connection, or conversation, will create.

Your co-worker’s true identity is not wrapped up in the job performed. What are they good at? How do they excel beyond their last job, and what could they bring to a different organization?

You know them well, and understand their strengths. Refer them to friends, colleagues, organizational leaders, and recruiters who are looking for their skill set.  Offer to become a reference for them.  

Avoid doing nothing

It’s hard enough to be laid off, and even worse to lose the friendships along with the job.  If you do nothing, you show a lack of empathy and genuine friendship, even if you don’t mean it that way.  

If you avoid the person, cut off communication, and move around on eggshells, you enhance the pain caused by the layoff. You are not helping the company culture with these actions, either.  The company will go on, and your responsibility to your leadership role and to the company culture must also go on.

Losing a job is not the end of the person or your relationship, it’s just the end of a job.

The bottom line is you are more than the work you do, and your friendships created with coworkers are stronger than you think.  Your job does not define you, nor does it define your coworkers.  You and your coworkers are more than job titles, salaries, and responsibilities at work. You have a life, and identities, outside of work. Hopefully, the culture within the organization has emphasized the importance of blending work and life, so as not to allow one to take over the other.

Life exists with coworkers, former coworkers, and friends, some who have been laid off. Those same relationships can last through the life events that create bumps in the road, but do not have to be the end all for the people you come to know and befriend at work. 

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