Layoff Etiquette 101

When friends are out of work, they're still friends and should be treated that way. Tomorrow it could be you

Layoffs are never easy, and they're never fun—whether you're the person who's out of a job or the colleague left behind.

One banker I know is racked with guilt because he has been told that 20 people from his group will soon be let go. Many of them are respected longtime colleagues and friends, and he is among only a handful who will be kept on. He's not allowed to tell them about the bad news and feels guilty and helpless. When they do find out, he'll be there to take them out for a drink and lend his support, but he realizes there are limitation to what he can say or do. And he still has a paycheck, after all.

"There's not much you can do," says a lawyer friend. Her former assistant, whose husband was already out of work, was recently let go. "Financially it's really tough for them. I just try to be encouraging." She has also tried to help her former assistant in the job hunt, but in today's tight market, that hasn't been an easy assignment.

Potential for Misunderstanding

There is no formula, no hard-and-fast rules on what—and what not—to say and do when a friend or colleague has been laid off or you yourself have been let go. It's a situation that offers great potential for misunderstanding and hurt feelings, as the people who have lost their jobs are understandably sensitive, embarrassed, and scared, and those who haven't just don't always know what to do.

Different situations clearly call for very different reactions. Just be honest about what you're prepared to do. The question you should ask is: "What am I realistically able—and genuinely committed to—doing to help out?" It can be something small. For instance, I once had a colleague who was laid off, and when she mentioned that she would miss reading the magazine, I volunteered to drop by the latest issue each week. And I did.

But that was all I did—and I stopped doing even that after a few months. Perhaps it was in part because I didn't think I could be of much help (I was new on the job myself). Also, I felt awful about the situation and didn't really know how to act or what to say. When I eventually stopped delivering the magazine, I did so without notice and didn't really keep in touch.

My awkwardness led to inertia. Instead of treating her like a friend, and offering help and encouragement, I did the opposite. I abandoned her when she most needed me. Keeping people in the loop or being available to them to be a sounding board and to generate ideas is more valuable than we realize.

Keeping in the Loop

It's certainly helpful to be sensitive about money-related matters, such as restaurant picks or trips. But everyone I spoke with agreed: It's most important to be helpful in terms of career networking or keeping past colleagues in the loop. "I have some friends who are really great about passing my résumé along," says Colin Wells, a former analyst in the informational records management group at the now-defunct Lehman Brothers. "People are really trying to help however they can."

But helping out friends isn't without complications. What do you do, for example, if a friend applies for a job at your company and asks you to put in a good word? If she's qualified, it's a no-brainer. But what if she isn't? Do you tell her so and risk losing your friend, or make the recommendation and put your own job in jeopardy?

According to those I spoke with—who ranged from a CEO to 22-year-old recent grad—it seems that quasi-honesty is the best policy. You shouldn't promise to put in a good word if you have no intention of doing so. However, you can be helpful in other ways, such as recommending her for a position where she might be a better fit or offering some advice about other employers that might have opportunities.

And if you're the person who has been laid off, what can you do to ensure that former colleagues are eager to provide any assistance they can? When you are sending a goodbye to your colleagues or announcing your new contact information, don't just send the obligatory mass e-mail. You have to make it personal.

Good Karma

One still-employed friend mentioned how much it meant to her when a former colleague who had been laid off sent out a note to only a handful of people at the company, including her. It made her feel special and singled out, so she made an extra effort to stay in touch and ultimately alerted the former colleague to future employment opportunities.

Such personalized attention will pay big dividends later, says career blogger and columnist Penelope Trunk. "It might take five or six days to write a bunch of personal e-mails, but it might be worth it. I mean, you have the time, and you need to be networking now anyway."

And you might find that people are eager to help. Layoffs have become increasingly normal and almost expected; any stigma attached to being let go is fast disappearing. And people realize that helping others is good karma—and practical. "Generally, people are very supportive and understanding," says Nandita Mohile, who lost her job event planning for a financial services firm in October. "This is an environment where you have to be supportive. You might be that person tomorrow."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.