What to Say When Someone Loses Their Job

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Let the tiptoeing begin. As of July, American companies had already shed more than 1.1 million jobs this year, and with Wall Street’s recent financial woes, that figure is sure to grow. Chances are, someone you know will meet this unpleasant fate in coming months; while outright avoidance may work when it’s junior’s Little League coach, handling a relationship with a friend or coworker who’s recently suffered such a blow needs a delicate touch. To help, TIME’s Kathleen Kingsbury sought the advice of Anne Baber, co-author of How to Fireproof Your Career, based on interviews with several hundred laid-off employees. Below, an edited version of Baber’s ins and outs of lay-off etiquette.

If the person is…

Your colleague:
Baber: Let’s assume this is a person you know has done a great job, because, as we all know, the axe falls on the worthy and the unworthy. At the very moment, say “I’m going to stay in touch with you.” Then what you can say is, “Sit down with me, go through your resume with me” and, as a co-worker, point out your successes as a team or projects that person has excelled at. The key thing you can offer is to introduce your coworker to the people you know, because you can bring to your coworker circles of people your coworker will never be able to enter except through you. So you have a great gift to give.

Bob from down the block:
Baber: Again, two-thirds to three-quarters of white-collar jobs are found through networking. For a neighbor, you can introduce him to different people and get his resume to different companies that he would have never had a chance to find on his own. Ask about what he’s done in the past and about what kind of jobs he’s interested in, so you can go through your Rolodex and see if there are contacts that he might benefit from meeting. Also, if you’ve ever lost a job, tell him. Misery loves company. Remind him that it happens to a lot of good people.

Your spouse or another family member:
Baber: You hear all the time about the people who put the suit on and go to the office because they can’t stand the idea of trying to talk to their spouse about losing a job. So never say “You should have” or any of the blaming stuff. It’s over and you can’t change anything, so you have to say “I’m upset and I’m worried, but we’re going to move forward.” And take the time to talk.

Baber: Do not race around to contact people. Take 20 days before you start to job hunt again. Eat healthy, exercise and take the time to reassure your significant other. Getting laid off can lead to a series of emotions not unlike mourning, and spouses feel that, too. You have to get through the emotional reaction. This is advice based on research of people who took 20 days and wrote daily about their feelings. By doing that, you can get rid of the toxic stuff that will leach out in your conversations with other people. You can fulminate or say “why didn’t I” or call your boss names, anything you want. And then at the end of the 20 days, burn what you wrote. And you’re ready to get on with your new life.

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