Like so many Americans, Sherri, an events and marketing coordinator at a university, heard through the office rumor mill in December that her employer planned to make significant budget cuts in 2009.
In January, Sherri's department got the official word that it would need to slash spending by 20 percent. For weeks, speculation over which programs and positions would be nixed -- and when -- swirled around the department. By the time she received word in mid-February that her state-funded position was one of 12 the department planned to cut, Sherri was hardly surprised.
"The gossip helped me prepare," Sherri said. "I'm a single mother of two and I don't get child support. So I don't really have an option to sit back and do nothing."
As Sherri finishes her final month on the job, she's fine-tuning plans to go into business for herself. Thanks to the rumor mill, she may already have found her first few clients: Several colleagues have offered to hire her once she hangs her own shingle.
Besides helping her prepare from a financial standpoint, the layoff grapevine helped Sherri emotionally prepare for her job loss.
"Had I not known there was a chance I could be laid off, I may not have handled the conversation about my job ending as well as I did," she said.
(Sherri, like everyone else interviewed for this story, declined to give her real name for fear of repercussions from her current employer.)
"People do better with anticipated shocks to their system than they do with surprises," layoffs included, said Steve Crimando, managing director of XBRM, a behavioral sciences consulting firm in New York that helps employers deal with crisis management.
Gossiping about potential layoffs also gives anxious employees a way to vent about their fears and frustrations -- and even bond over them.
"The upside is people get to blow off steam and talk about layoffs in an informal way that maybe is not sanctioned in the office," Crimando said. "There's a sense that you're not in it alone."
Of course, sometimes all this water cooler speculation does more harm than good.
Giselle, a counselor at a government agency, has been fretting for weeks over the rumors floating around her organization. According to a coworker who spoke with a supervisor in the know, 20 percent of all staff will be pink-slipped by the end of the year.
"I wish I didn't know this. Knowing that something bad will happen but [having] no information on when or to whom really puts you on high alert," she said. "Whenever an office door closes with more than one person [in the room], I worry."
The fact that her coworkers are also concerned has done little to ease Giselle's mind. Ditto for the fact that she just joined the agency four months ago and is the newest addition to the team.
"A friend says that people will stop making eye contact when they know you're the one getting let go," Giselle said. "So now I scrutinize everybody to see if they are really looking at me as I walk up and down the hall -- especially the boss. It's exhausting."
Sarah, a graphic designer at a four-person consulting firm, also wishes she didn't know quite so much about her company's fate.