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What to say when a coworker (or manager) gets laid off

It can be awkward to figure out what to say, but it’s important to reach out.

What to say when a coworker (or manager) gets laid off
[Source photo: Dacharlie/Getty Images]

Despite the generally good economy, there is still volatility in the job market. There are always some specific firms that are hiring while others are downsizing—or going out of business all together.

When your company is conducting layoffs, it’s hard to be one of the people let go, but it is also challenging to be someone who remains. One complexity to being one of the survivors is how to engage with your colleagues who have lost their jobs. You might not know what to say.


The first complexity is whether the people who get laid off are given notice, but continue working for a few weeks, or whether they are laid off and removed from the workplace right away.

When the layoffs are immediate, it can be difficult, because your colleague is there with you one day and gone the next. In those situations, find a way to reach out to them if you can. If you had a personal phone number or email, use that. Otherwise, connect with them on LinkedIn, if you have not done so already.

Layoffs are a real emotional blow, so start with an empathic connection. You don’t have to communicate much more than that you know they are going through a difficult time. In addition to stressing about finances, the workplace often makes up a substantial part of people’s social networks, and so it can be as isolating to get laid off as it can be to go through a breakup.

Resist the urge to trash-talk your current employer. You can let your former colleague vent a bit, but try to keep the conversation positive and forward-thinking. For one thing, people tend to stay in the industry, and so negative things you and others say may make the rounds of the gossip mill. For another, you never know when you will both need to engage with the people you’re trashing again. You never want to say anything (or encourage someone else to say something) that might burn a bridge that you or they need in the future.


At times, a person who is being laid off may be kept on a list of people to be rehired. In addition, some people may volunteer for a layoff (particularly if they are nearing retirement or have been contemplating a career change). In those situations, the individual who was laid off may actually work for a few weeks before leaving.

In those situations, you still want to express empathy. Even a voluntary layoff is a disruption. It can feel awkward to say something, because you were not let go. You do not need to say much in situations like this. Simply making the effort to reach out and express your concern for them is enough. It helps you to maintain a collegial relationship with someone and also gives them a feeling of connectedness at a difficult time.


If you’re left behind after a colleague has left, then you have to make sure that the organization continues to thrive (or you might be out of a job, too). That means that you may need to get some information from your now former colleague, if possible. This is particularly true if the person who got laid off was your manager.

One of the problems with layoffs is that you lose institutional memory, in addition to the expertise of the employee. After commiserating, use your judgment about whether it would be okay to ask a few questions about your colleague’s view of the organization. These insights might help you to do your job more effectively in the future.

This aspect of the conversation is likely to be awkward under the best of circumstances, because they’re likely to have some bad feelings about the company that just let them go. Essentially, you are asking your colleague to take your perspective. They aren’t helping their former employer, but rather allowing you to do the best possible job you can.

If they agree to help, ask about things that have not been working well from their perspective that need attention. In addition, it would be valuable to get a list of tasks that might get forgotten now that people have been laid off.

Finally, if the person who was laid off was in management, it would be useful to know what they think the biggest threats are to the company’s success moving forward. This conversation may help you to decide whether you should be looking for another job ahead of another potential round of layoffs. You have to take the advice of someone who was just let go with a grain (or two) of salt, of course, but you might learn a few things to watch out for to get a sense that more cuts are coming.

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Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, Brain Briefs, and, most recently, Bring Your Brain to Work. More

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