How to Help Your Unemployed Friend
by Laura Benjamin

I can’t imagine how an amputee feels upon waking from anesthesia. A friend who has gone through this says that on one level you are very aware the limb no longer exists, yet you still feel an urge to scratch an itch, or wiggle a toe. It takes some time to transition from being ‘fully-featured’, as he calls it, to someone who must make peace with the fact that while you’re still the same person, you’ll never be the same again.

Consider that friend of yours who came back from lunch this afternoon to find out his job no longer exists. He’ll experience similar feelings tomorrow morning; he’ll wake up not quite knowing who he is and where he belongs. Intellectually, he’ll remember getting the news and knowing the decision is final, yet still feel responsible for the incomplete project, restrain himself from calling about the end-of-month reports, and check the clock before he realizes there’s no need now to worry about that important Partner meeting.

No matter how casually he took the news, the next few months (or years) will be rife with emotional ups and downs because losing one’s job hits multiple pressure points:

We lose social connections. While some make it a rule not to socialize with co-workers, they are in the minority. Over time, most of us can’t help but develop friendships with peers and managers that revolve around shared work experiences, successes, and failures. In one moment, that all changes and you’re no longer privy to the inside jokes. "You just had to be there," they say and guess what … you’re not, so your world becomes just a little more removed from theirs. Some friends will stick with you because the friendship is built on something deeper than work related issues, but others may seem uncomfortable around you as if your situation is "catchy".

Our sense of identity suffers. Who we are is very wrapped up in what we do for a living. Whether you’ve held this job for one year or 20, productive work shapes our identity, defines how we impact the world, builds self-esteem and instills a sense of purpose. In the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote that maintaining a sense of purpose – having a life of meaning – was the one thing that kept some from perishing in Nazi concentration camps. (Frankl survived not just one, but four concentration camps!) No matter how often you might have joked, "Just watch how fast I clean out this desk when I win the lottery", having nothing meaningful to do takes a different kind of toll on one’s psyche.

Ambiguity is hard to handle. Familiar surroundings, predictable routines, expected outcomes, and recognizable faces offer comfort, safety and security. No matter how often we beat our chests and shout, "I am the world’s greatest change-agent; hear me roar!" we are creatures of habit and appreciate knowing where to go and what to do most of the time. It is extremely unsettling and stressful to NOT KNOW what will happen next. (Discomfort with ambiguity is the #1 reason why some entrepreneurs go back to a "regular" job.)

So how can you help those you know who have lost their jobs? Don’t pretend that nothing’s happened. This can be just as traumatic an experience as death or divorce for some. Pull up a chair, lend an ear, and give them plenty of time to talk about it.

Help them focus on action steps. Too much mulling it over isn’t healthy and allows them to postpone work that needs to be done. The sooner they get productive and start their search process, the better for everyone. Buy them a recent copy of "What Color is Your Parachute" by Richard Nelson Bolles. This job search guide is one of the best career resources available and is updated each year.

Brainstorm to help them identify and quantify work accomplishments for their resume. This is something most people have extreme difficulty doing because they’re just too close to their own jobs.

Ask them to be specific about what kind of organization they want to work for in the future, including product/mission, demographics, location, and the type of culture.

Pull out your Rolodex or contact management software and connect them with anyone who might know someone who knows lots of other people.

Offer to quality-check their resume and cover letters before they send them out – insist on this.

Call them regularly to see how things are going and offer one more lead.

Kick them in the behind (figuratively speaking, of course!) if you see them spending more time answering job ads and surfing the net listings than meeting with real live people. It’s much safer and easier to spend time "hiding out" behind a computer screen than risk the potential rejection of "getting out there". It’s also much less effective.

Losing one’s job is an all too frequent reality in today’s workplace and you can’t imagine how you would react until you’ve been through it. No one is exempt. In addition to just being the right thing to do, consider the time and energy you put into helping a friend with their transition as a step up in your own learning curve – for whenever you’re faced with experiencing the process on your own!

Laura Benjamin is an international speaker and author who specializes in Career and Management Development. Her work has been featured on television and radio, from to Remodeling and Managing Partner magazines. Her workshops and audio-tapes on "Layoff First Aid: How to Heal From Your Most Recent Layoff" have propelled job seekers back to work in half the time. Subscribe to her FREE monthly email newsletter at:

Also by Laura Benjamin - Customer Service That Goes Above and Beyond | Many more articles in The HR Refresher, Personal Development and Coaching in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Laura Benjamin. All rights reserved.

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