What Not To Say To Someone Who Was Laid Off Or Furloughed Due To COVID-19

There's a compassionate way to show up for a friend who is facing unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Don't assume you know how people going through layoffs or furloughs are feeling right now.
Prostock-Studio via Getty Images
Don't assume you know how people going through layoffs or furloughs are feeling right now.

In the past six weeks, more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits because of the coronavirus outbreak. One in 6 American workers are estimated to be out of a job as of last Thursday.

Maybe one of those workers is someone you know. If you’re wondering how to support and show up for your former colleague or friend right now, first consider what you shouldn’t say to someone who’s just lost their job.

The lack of control people are feeling and the stress of staying healthy during a deadly pandemic is “stress on top of stress” for people going through job loss right now, Patrick O’Malley, a grief and trauma psychotherapist based in Texas, told HuffPost.

These well-meaning words of support could be doing more harm than good:

1. “Why now? How did they tell you? Did they give you a severance package?”

“Asking people for details pertaining to loss of employment is a boundary breach,” said Kristin Bianchi, a Maryland-based licensed psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Change. “This is particularly true when the loss in question may be a source of shame to the individual.”

Instead of prying for information, let the person decide how much they are willing to share with you before you ask. Asking less and listening more is the most respectful approach.

“While it’s perfectly human to have questions, exercising restraint demonstrates that we prioritize their privacy over our curiosity,” Bianchi told HuffPost.

If you are still employed, O’Malley added, a former colleague’s job loss is also not your opportunity to gossip or complain to them about work.

“If the person who is supposed to be helping is complaining, that’s an insensitivity,” he said. “You are talking to somebody who likely wishes they had something.”

2. “You’re not alone. At least you’re not the only one who is unemployed right now!”

When you tell your unemployed friend or colleague that they are not the only person unemployed during the pandemic, you are making broad assumptions about their specific experience.

Telling someone they are not alone “doesn’t feel personal,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist and executive coach in New York. “Somebody might be laid off and they’re OK, and for some people, it’s devastating. It’s not always OK. Not thinking about things from your perspective can be helpful.”

3. “Think of all you have to be grateful for. Thank goodness it’s not ... ”

Sometimes, people try to be supportive by comparing worse situations or pointing out the positive things in people’s lives.

This kind of comparison can show up in language like “‘But at least you’ve got this’ or ‘Thank goodness it’s not that.’ That’s all well-intended,” O’Malley said, “but it’s invalidating, minimizing to the individual’s story, because typically for many folks, this is loss and fear.”

“What not to do is to assume that your role is to make somebody feel better about it.”

- Patrick O'Malley, grief and trauma psychotherapist

Many people have abject fear about how the pandemic will affect their finances, while others may be OK with finances but they’re losing the meaning they get from work, O’Malley said.

“The rule of thumb is, don’t try to fix. Listen more than talk,” he said.

When you ask someone who is unemployed to stay positive, you are signaling that it’s not OK for that person to be less than happy right now.

“Reminding people to count their blessings in the wake of any life-changing loss can make it seem as though we perceive them to be ungrateful,” Bianchi said. “This has the potential to make them feel guilty and to question their character.”

4. “When I lost my job...”

“While we may wish to show solidarity by sharing that we have an experience in common, this type of statement takes attention away from the person who has lost their job and puts them in a position of feeling as though they have to console us during their time of loss,” Bianchi said.

5. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be OK.”

People who want to be supportive may say, “You’re going to be fine” to give their friend hope, but O’Malley said this is not helpful because it’s a cliche that is not specific to the person’s experience.

“What not to do is to assume that your role is to make somebody feel better about it,” he said. “They’re more likely to get there if you make the space [for them] to get through whatever is going on.”

Instead of making uncertain promises, be more direct and specific in your acknowledgment of their feelings. O’Malley said if it is true to your relationship with the unemployed person, you can say something like, “I certainly have great confidence that you’ll figure this out, but right now must be really scary. I certainly wish for you that you can get things back to the way they were before the pandemic, but let’s just talk about right now.”

The goal, O’Malley said, is to make sure your words of support aren’t trying to spin or fix the problem.

Showing support to an unemployed person means staying present to their needs, not what you need.

Listen more than talk, and share advice only when asked. Accept that you may not be the person your unemployed colleague or friend wants to talk to about this. And if they do talk, listen ― don’t offer your two cents about what they should do next.

“Don’t consult unless you’re clearly asked to consult,” O’Malley said. “These are two very different forms of interaction: the listening, reflecting, supporting and holding and support versus the consulting, advising and directing. My opinion is that you never start with the latter. You only go to the latter if you’re invited.“

Acknowledgment is better than silence. Even if it’s awkward to bring it up, O’Malley said engaging and attempting to connect about job loss is better than not acknowledging it happened. “Your better mistake if you’re making a mistake is to engage ... than not say anything at all,” he said.

Share your professional contacts. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can offer to the other person, “If there’s a contact you want me to reach out to, I would be more than happy to do so,” Orbé-Austin said, adding that a letter of reference or LinkedIn recommendation are also helpful ways to show professional support.

Check in on them more than once. Don’t see support as a one-and-done interaction, O’Malley said. See it as an ongoing process of engaging and connecting so that your unemployed friend or colleague feels supported.

If you’re trying to be a good friend or colleague to someone going through job loss, “make yourself a note to check in on them once a month or every few weeks, just saying, ‘Checking in. Want to see what’s the same, what’s different and how you’re feeling about all of this,’” O’Malley said.

Team up with others to provide help. You and other supportive friends and colleagues can send a letter or card, deliver a favorite meal or give a gift card, Bianchi said. If you’re giving a gift card, “consider using anonymity if you sense that although the contribution is needed, knowledge of the sender might be injurious to [their] pride,” she said.

If the unemployed person has disclosed their need for help publicly, you can “team up with other members of their social network to provide them with various types of support,” Bianchi added. “This may involve crowdfunding, meal trains and many other types of assistance with the logistics of staying afloat in the absence of an income.”

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