How to Talk to a Laid-Off Coworker

These are some of the trickiest workplace conversations, but it's important not to hide.

A businessman putting belongings in a box.
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It's the fortunate office that hasn't had layoffs in the past year. As nearly 3 million jobs have been erased from the U.S. economy since the recession began, companies are grappling with payroll cuts that damage morale and rupture workplace relationships. Still, while many workers are familiar with layoffs, they rarely are comfortable facing them. It's common to feel paralyzed when you walk by as your colleague is wrapping up loose ends before he walks out the door. It's awkward. Words are hard to find. Facing a coworker's layoff is not unlike facing a friend's grief over a death, says Susan Cramm, an executive coach and founder of Valuedance. It's tough for many people to know what to say and it's easy to back away and not risk the conversation.

Nevertheless, when colleagues are laid off, your support is better than your silence. Here's some advice on handling those tricky conversations:

If your coworker is packing up boxes: This is the touchiest time. What do you say right afterward, as news is still filtering through the office? You probably fear saying anything—and you're not alone. "Shoot, approaching the desk of someone who just been laid off is stressful," says Laurie Ruettimann, a speaker and writer on human resources issues who blogs at Punk Rock HR. "If you want to say goodbye, a hug or a handshake will go further and mean more than an awkward conversation."

Any worries about what to say to someone who's losing their job are premature, because when people are angry and still feeling the blow of the loss, they don't need advice givers, Cramm says: "You just stop and you sit down and you look them in the eyes and say, 'What a bummer.'" They want listeners, or people who will empathize and have compassion. "They just want people to say, 'This must be a shock,'" Cramm says.

If it's been a few weeks: For one thing, if you're going to hold off on contacting a colleague until after they're out of the office for a few weeks, don't expect your human resources department to hand over their E-mail address. They won't hand over contact information because for privacy reasons, Ruettimann says. She recommends tracking them down on social networking applications like LinkedIn or Facebook. Simply opening an account on a site like LinkedIn will, at the very least, give laid off colleagues a way to get in touch with you.

At this point your colleague has probably begun the job search, and it won't be an easy one. With jobs continuing to be shed rapidly, in the 15th month of this recession, their job hunt may well be a slog through frustrating job fairs and tough, fruitless interviews. "I think the most important thing that somebody can do is open up their Rolodex," Cramm says. Put simply—the best support you can give is who you know. She also recommends they read a favored book on the job search—Don't Send a Resume: And Other Contrarian Rules to Help  Land a Great Job, by Jeffrey Fox.

If he or she is a superior: This is a complicated conversation, to be certain. Straight empathy may ring condescending to a former manager, as he or she heads out the door while you stay on the payroll. Cramm recommends offering to help in whatever way possible and emphasizing that you'd like to stay in touch. She suggests you say to a higher-up: "Let me know your plans." At that point, you can offer a compliment if it's honest, and say something like, "I'd like to work for you again.

If you're the superior: It's your job to make the cuts and help keep the company healthy enough to weather the economic slowdown. It's no doubt tempting to hunker down in your office on the day of layoffs and let your assistant pick up your lunch. The tricky conversations for a superior on this day are often with the employees who stick around—they're upset, confused, and anxious. Guy Kawasaki, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former Apple fellow, sketched out some guidelines for laying people off in his recently published book Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. Kawasaki emphasizes the importance of circulating with the troops after you've had layoffs. "This is the time for you to motivate by walking around," Kawasaki says. "Employees need to see you, talk to you, and seek your help and advice." Employees need leadership and direction more than ever now. "The brave face that you put on may be a charade, but it’s an important charade," he says.