As Workers Get Ax, Friendships Also Cut

Staying friends with a co-worker after a layoff can be awfully complicated.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

Jan. 8, 2009 — -- 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.

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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.

After the Layoffs: You're Too Ashamed to Contact Them

"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.

Of course, there's always the chance that the newly laid off will reach out to their former comrades, only to get an earful about their ex-office mates' own employment woes.

That's what happened to Jennifer Bourgoyne, who was laid off in 2005 from her Silicon Valley job of 12 years -- when she was nine months pregnant. When a work place pal called to see how Bourgoyne was doing post-layoff, Bourgoyne got anything but sympathy.

"When I told her it felt really crummy still, she told me that I needed to 'stop being like this and think about how hard it is for those still there,'" explained Bourgoyne, who's since started her own business. "I was so shocked, I had to laugh."

Seattle journalist Amy Roe, who was laid off from her media job last year, reported a similar experience.

"A friend who still works there complains about how much she hates her job and how depressing the newsroom is," Roe explained via e-mail. "She always assures me I'm not missing anything, but of course there's one thing I'm missing: a paycheck."

Wallaert offers this reminder: "For the person who stays behind, there's still that axe over their head. They're still worried about their position."

"Your work friends are not the ones you should reach out to for layoff comfort," he said.

That's what your other friends, your significant other or your family are for.

Former Coworkers Now Competition

But how about reaching out to others who also have been laid off by your employer? Surely that's one way to eliminate all this "us against them" unpleasantness -- right?

Not necessarily.

In tight-knit professional circles where jobs are being swallowed up like parked cars in sinkholes, your fellow pink-slip casualties might not be the best ones to confide in about your current job hunt.

"We're all competing for the same tiny pool of jobs, and this makes it pretty awkward," said Roe of the journalists she's befriended in her decade in the business, a number of whom are also out of work right now.

"Normally, you help your friends out, but in this case, your friends are also the competition. You never know who is applying for what, and nobody really talks about it. It's kind of a like a conversational third rail."

That's not to say you should avoid hanging around with your competition altogether. Just shift your conversations away from grainier questions like "What are you going to do now?" and toward more general, long-term ones like "What would you like to do next?" Wallaert advised.

And whatever you do, keep your prized job leads close to your vest.

After the Layoffs: Band Together and Make Lemonade?

None of this is to say that layoffs and work friendships always make for awkward bedfellows.

For Katharine Richardson from Nashville, who was laid off in 2007 from her marketing director job in the music industry, pink slips and pleasure have gone in hand.

To stay in touch with laid-off colleagues throughout the country, she started an alumni e-mail list on Yahoo! Groups.

"Every time someone new is laid off, we welcome them immediately to the invitation-only group and congratulate them on graduating," said Richardson, who now runs her own company. "We help each other network for new jobs and help people deal with the horrible feelings from being laid off."

But that's not all.

"This year at the National Association of Music Merchandisers convention, we held the first annual alumni reunion party and had over 60 people come -- all former employees," Richardson said. "It was a blast."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,

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