Five Things Not to Say to Someone Who Was Just Laid Off

In today’s economy it seems no one is immune from layoffs. With the unemployment rate sitting at 9.0%, there’s always a chance someone you know could lose their job.

We all want to be supportive when friends or family members lose their jobs, but how do you know where to begin the conversation?  We checked in with experts to find the top five things better left unsaid when speaking with the recently unemployed.

1.) Badmouthing the Company or Boss 

What not to say: “You’re better off not working for them.”

“Anything you say that is looking back is probably not a good thing to say,” advises Sally Haver, senior vice president of The Ayers Group and Career Partners International. “They need to look forward, and focusing on the past is using their energy in a very negative way.”

You never how attached a person was to his or her company or boss, and could being taking the decision personally, says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.

Any negativity should be cut off at the pass, says Cappelli. When people are resentful of former managers who made the decision to let them go, they inevitably don’t interview well. If the bad-mouthing of the former employer carries over into an interview with a new company, it could make any prospective employers wary.

“Any new employer will think you may badmouth them in the future just the way you are badmouthing your former employer now,” says Haver.

What to say instead:  “You did some great things at your previous job, and you’ll be able to do that in your next position.”

2.) Offering Unrealistic Expectations 

What not to say:  “Don’t worry, you’ll have a new job in no time.”

“You want people to be hopeful, but you don’t want to raise expectations,” explains Haver. “To say you’ll land something right away sets up unrealistic expectations.”

The truth is, in today’s weak labor market, it will likely take longer than it has in the past to find a new position. When you have bills to pay, every day is like a month, but overpromising is just as bad as underpromising, says Haver.

“You wouldn’t say: ‘Oh, you’re a loser and it’s impossible to find a job in this market,’ says Haver. “By the same token you shouldn’t tell someone, ‘Oh, you’ll find a job in three weeks,’ because they probably won’t.”

While it’s important to give the unemployed confidence and hope in their ability to find a job, don’t gloss over the fact that it’s an eight-hour-a-day job to find a job.

“It’s a process that yields to effort. The more you put in, the more you get out. It’s going to take a lot of sweat equity to make something happen,” says Haver.

What to say instead: “Even though it may not seem like it now, there are jobs to be had.”

3.) Questioning What Went Wrong 

What not to say: “What did you do that made them fire you?”

“When people ask what happened, they are really just reflecting on their own worries,” according to Cappelli. “They are trying to find out what you did wrong so it doesn’t happen to them. That is not what the person needs to hear.”

Your goal when addressing a person who was recently laid off should be to help him or her feel good. Just as you wouldn’t ask people with cancer whether or not they smoked, you shouldn’t ask someone who lost his job what he did to lose it, says Cappelli.

“It’s really an etiquette thing,” says Haver. “It’s something that was a good fit and is no longer a good fit, and that’s all you need to know.”

If you are friends with the person in question, more than likely he will share what happened when ready, says Haver. Yet, even if you consider the person a good friend, you can never be totally sure how he will react to such a change.

“Some may be really tender about it, while others are much stronger. “Some may feel very confused by what happened and will need all the confidence you can offer them in order to stay on top of their game.”

What to say instead: “Are you alright? Is there anything I can do to help?"

4.) Offering Instructions on How to Act or What to Do 

What not to say: “You should put on a happy face and start applying for jobs now.”

Even though it’s true that recently-unemployed persons should start networking and looking for work as soon as possible, it’s not something they want to hear when they are confessing their problems to you, explains Susan Wilson Solovic, author of "Reinvent Your Career: Obtain the Success You Desire and Deserve."

“Give them the autonomy as the individual to make the decisions on their next move,” says Solovic. “Don’t make them feel any less significant than they already do by telling them how to act or what to do. They are already grieving.”

A good way to think about it is reflecting on how you felt as a kid when your parents told you what to do.

“You listened more if your parents offered suggestions rather than directives,” says Solovic. “In this case, you can mention what has worked for other people, but don’t imply that they have to do it.”

What to say instead: “I know a few people in your situation who had luck tapping into their network of contacts.”

5.) Joking About the Situation 

What not to say: “Hey, at least you get to draw unemployment now!”

“You have to acknowledge they are grieving,” says Solovic. “Don’t offhandedly say things like, ‘Oh, it’s the company’s loss,’ because it’s their loss, too, and you can’t diminish that.”

Even if you have been through a situation like this before and bounced back completely, you can’t assume that the person you’re speaking with is ready to joke, warns Solovic. Before you bring levity into the situation, acknowledge the problem.

“If you try to make a joke before the person is ready, you’re just going to antagonize them more.”

The person needs to feel like they were a significant part of her former company, even if she said she hate the company. It’s human nature to take rejection personally, and before any jokes can be made, a sympathetic ear must be offered.

What to say instead:  “Have you talked about what all your rights and benefits may be while you’re going through your transition period?"