How to react when a co-worker gets laid off

Pro tip: “Thank goodness it wasn’t me,” isn’t a great place to start.

How to react when a co-worker gets laid off

Layoffs are tough on everyone—even when you're spared.

Approximately 30 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits due to the new coronavirus upending the workforce. You probably know someone who has been affected, perhaps even a co-worker. It's only natural to feel relief when you dodge the proverbial pink slip bullet, but what exactly is the professional and compassionate thing to do when a colleague is out of a job? 

Mumble platitudes? Send flowers?

They don’t teach this in school, so we turned to experts for dos and don’ts on handling a truly awkward and painful situation.

Do: Proactively reach out

In most workplaces, the rumors will start humming shortly after the person learns he or she has been let go, says Rebecca Barnes-Hogg, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina–based author of The YOLO Principle: The Ultimate Hiring Guide for Small Business and co-author of Rethinking Human Resources.

If you’re close to the person on the receiving end of the bad news, it’s a good idea to reach out to them versus acting like it never happened. Your goal is to be compassionate, kind, and supportive—just like you’d want if the roles were reversed, says HR strategist Julie Blomsterberg, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, founder of Fluid HR Solutions in the Chicago area.

Do: Show empathy

Losing a job is an emotionally, psychologically, and financially stressful event, Barnes-Hogg says. Which means your friend could probably use a self-esteem boost.

Remind him or her of the great work they did by saying things like, "That project never would have gotten done without your expertise," or, "I’ve never met someone with your attention to detail."

“You can’t change what’s happened, but you can help make that person feel like they did valuable work that mattered and left an impact,” Barnes-Hogg says.

Don’t: Put your foot in your mouth

The worst thing you could do is express relief that it wasn’t you, Barnes-Hogg says. Framing the layoff as a good thing is also a no-no.

“Offering a platitude like, ‘You’ll find something better,’ or ‘You hated the job, boss, projects, et. cetera,’ is like twisting a knife in a wound,” Barnes-Hogg says.

Keep the conversation positive, and resist the urge to dig for information, suggests Steve Saah, an executive director with Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Washington, D.C.

“There are probably factors you and others are unaware of that contributed to the layoff,” he says. “You won’t figure out the whole story, and you shouldn’t try to do so.”

Do: Help them land on their feet

Once the person has had a day or two to soak in what went down, reach out with an offer to help them in their job search.

If you enjoyed working with them, offer to be a reference. (Just check with your employer first to make sure that doesn’t go against company policy, Saah says.)

You could also offer to critique their resume and make introductions to people in your network, Barnes-Hogg suggests.

Or, if you’re not sure your resume-editing skills are up-to-date, let them know about Monster’s free online resume assessment that can give them feedback and even help revise their current resume.

Don’t: Suffer silently wondering if you’re next

Feeling anxious that you’re next on the chopping block? Don’t keep it inside. Barnes-Hogg suggests approaching your manager and asking for details about the business reasons behind the layoff.

Understanding the decision from a business standpoint and getting a sense of what’s to come can help you recover or prepare for the future. “You’re better off being more informed as to what the criteria is, and oftentimes management people will tell others X, Y, Z is coming down the pipeline,” Blomsterberg says.

Do: Stay positive

Try not to let the turmoil get in the way of your work performance. “While there’s no way to guarantee your own job security, demonstrate the ability to stay positive and maintain productivity when faced with adversity,” Saah says. “The more you can do to lift the collective team spirit, the better off you will be.”

Let the layoff be a reminder that it’s always a good idea to keep your resume updated in case you find yourself in the job market sooner than you expected. Could you use some help? Join Monster for free todayAs a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads. It certainly doesn't hurt to see what else is out there.