What to Say When... A Coworker Is Fired

Your colleague is on the unemployment line. You're not. Here's how to respond

It might have started with a closed-door one-on-one or a mass meeting that you weren’t invited to. But quickly it becomes clear that soon, there will be one or more empty desks at your office.

You might have the urge to take an early lunch, thus avoiding having to see your teary-eyed (former) coworker carrying her plant and coffee mug out the door. Resist it, says Vicki Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions.

“When people are let go, they feel like they’re invisible,” says Oliver. “It’s almost as if their coworkers think their bad luck is contagious. It’s hurtful. Not only have they been fired; they feel like they’re being quarantined.”

So what should you say, especially if you're experiencing survivor guilt, or fear that you might be the next one summoned into a closed-door meeting? “I’m sorry,” and “Let me know how I can help,” are good ways to show your support. Here are some other strategies from Oliver and people who’ve experienced being pink-slipped.

Take your co-worker out. “A friend I made while working told me to get in touch so that we could go to lunch,” says Jacqueline Gikow, 64, of New York City. “That was helpful.” Not only does it let your coworker know that you will miss her, it also avoids an in-office “what happened?” gossip fest that won’t be appreciated by bosses who might be looking for more fat to trim, Oliver says. And one other tip: Seeing as how you still have a job, you should pick up the check.

Offer practical job-hunting help. The best help you can offer a terminated coworker is assistance finding the next job. “More than any words of advice or comfort, that support to help find a new job is critical,” says Andrea Rozman, 41, of Clarkston, Mich., whose coworkers offered to serve as references for her next gig. “If the person wants to stay in the same field, give them contacts, possibly headhunters that you’ve used,” says Oliver. “You don’t have to give them your black book, but just five people that they can reach out to is helpful.”

Follow up. If you offer to write a reference or contact a colleague on her behalf, do it. And do it quickly. You might be busy at work, but odds are your former coworker is sitting at home waiting for that email from you.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you’re not comfortable with writing a reference or calling a headhunter, don’t say you will. “Try to be honest, and instead let them know what you can do, like help them with their resume,” says Oliver.

After the lunch is paid for and goodbyes are said, don’t let that end your relationship, Oliver says. Give your coworker your personal phone number and email address and offer to keep in touch. This not only helps your coworker to feel supported during a difficult time, it helps you maintain a business connection.

“You never know," says Oliver. "They may end up landing a fantastic job and maybe they’ll be able to get you there."

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