After getting laid off in 2008 from her corporate job of five years, Sheila Miller, a marketing professional from the Southeast, noticed a coworker pal who was still with the company "acting strange."
Miller tried to contact her friend outside the office but got the sense that her friend was ducking her calls and e-mails. Not only that, "When I did get her on the phone, she was very quick to hang up," Miller said.
When confronted, Miller's ex-office mate revealed some disturbing information about a meeting their department's vice president had called with the remaining members of his team:
"He told them they should not interact with anyone who was laid off," Miller said. "They were instructed to sever all ties."
"Of course, this impacted my relationship with a few people. The ones who were afraid," Miller said via e-mail. "I worked for a travel company. We're not talking trade secrets or the making of an atom bomb."
Save for those few exceptions, Miller managed to hold onto the friends she'd made on the job, despite the VP's fondness for asking whether any of his people kept in touch with their pink-slipped counterparts.
But is it always realistic to think that you can pack up your friendships along with your other office tchotchkes after you've been laid off? Or does losing your livelihood and your reason for putting on a pair of pants in the morning sometimes mean forfeiting all social ties to the company too?
We always hear about guilt-ridden employees who didn't get the boot either avoiding their outbound office mates like the plague or smothering them with sympathy, platitudes and parting gifts. But in talking with a number of laid off workers in the past week, I began to detect a few more twists in their relationships with coworkers.
"I actually have not been able to stay friends with my coworkers," said Chicago writer Patrick Erwin, who was laid off in December -- ironically -- by a national job search firm. "I feel uncomfortable contacting them. It's been humiliating to lose my job."
Being cut from the team he'd enjoyed working with has also made him feel like the odd man out.
"I am still Facebook 'friends' with most of them, but it's really hard to watch them update their statuses and still work as a group while I'm stuck outside," said Erwin, who'd been on the job six months before getting the bad news.
New York-based social psychologist Matt Wallaert has a suggestion for laid-off workers worried that they no longer fit in socially with their former team: "Try and remove work from the dynamic of what your relationship is based on."
Translation: Skip Friday happy hours with your former work family, where talk of the day's admonitions and collaborations is sure to arise. Better to meet those cubicle mates you felt closest to one-on-one, on neutral territory, preferably outside the 10-block radius of your former office.
Wallaert, who specializes in the social psychology of money and worplace issues and works as a lead scientist for Thrive, a free online personal finance service, should know. The close friend who first brought him into the company in 2007 was recently laid off himself. But by avoiding an excess of shop talk, the two have managed to preserve their personal relationship.