Layoff Etiquette: How to Help Co-Workers

You've been spared a layoff, so why do you still feel so bad?

Feb. 3, 2009 — -- It's in the news every day -- layoffs.

Since the first of the year, employers have announced plans to lay off 260,000 people. That's given rise to a growing phenomenon in the workplace: job survivor guilt. These are the people who are suffering on the job when their co-workers are let go.

If a friend or colleague gets the news that he or she is being laid off, there are a few things to say, and a few not to say.

The Important "Don'ts"

"It's Not Fair." Don't tell them "it's not fair." Getting laid off isn't about fairness; it's about the reality of this economy. It's easy to slip into that blame game -- it should have been him or her, not you. But that's useless, so try not to go there.

"Don't Worry." Don't tell your friends not to worry. Of course they're worried; anyone would be if they were told their paycheck had come to an end. You don't want to minimize those very real feelings.

Don't Avoid Them. Your colleagues shouldn't leave in isolation. Even if you're not sure what to say, it's better to be visible than to hide.

The Important "Dos"

Listen. Let them vent. They may be angry, scared, confused, and they have every right to be when they're hit with this news. Let them know that they can call you or take a walk with you to blow off steam. You don't need all the answers; your job is to just listen.

Offer Help With Job Hunt Extend a hand by offering to help write a resume, open your Rolodex to make introductions or write a letter of reference if it's appropriate.

Keep in Touch. Keep in touch throughout the days and weeks ahead so they know you're there and interested. That's often when the isolation sets in, so it's a good time to check in.

The Empty Cubicle

Even though it's especially hard on those workers who actually lose their jobs, there can be some very real pain among those who remain employed.

Loss of Work Friends. You've worked together every day, and now they're gone. While that's true, you can still maintain your friendship from a distance -- it won't be exactly the same, but don't view it as over either.

Too Much Work.There's the fear of more work. "Our head count has shrunk, but the workload has remained the same." If you're concerned, ask your boss what will be expected of you and ask for help prioritizing. "Is there something that can be shifted from me or put on the back burner while I tackle what must get done?" Find the small silver lining: Perhaps the increased work load is an opportunity to learn a new skill or interact with a new department.

Job Insecurity. Job insecurity is significant and can lead to anxiety and depression. It's the "if it happened to him, it could certainly happen to me" feeling. Pay attention for signs that you may be feeling this way and seek help among family, friends, co-workers and even your doctor if the anxiety persists.

Ask About Company's Future. Employers must realize that these feelings of job insecurity exist and they must do what they can to reassure employees. Don't make it the elephant in the room; talk about it. If your boss hasn't reassured the troops -- which is something many managers struggle with because layoffs and unemployment are uncomfortable and even bosses aren't immune to that discomfort -- then be proactive about asking. "What's your take on the layoffs and what do you see for the short- and long-term health of our department or the company?"

Consider Your Next Move. We're insecure and anxious when we realize we might lose something that we need. But none of us are in our jobs forever. At some point, either by choice or force, all of us will move on from the jobs we hold today. These are all temporary assignments -- none are truly everlasting. And watching someone lose his or her job in a layoff gives us an opportunity to consider our next move -- it might not be tomorrow or next month -- but eventually we all move on and that's OK. So use this as a moment to think about your resume, your job goals and how you might move on when the time comes.

Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. Visit her Web site at