Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Losing Jobs without Losing it All

I've noticed a trend lately in the columns that is a clear reflection of our troubled economy: lots and lots and LOTS of letters from folks who have lost their jobs, or whose friends and spouses have. Most of the writers simply want to know how they can best be helpful and supportive, without coming across as patronizing (in particular if they still have a job, especially at the place from which the person was terminated). These two samples juxtapose nicely, and give perspective from both sides. First, Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners: Several of my co-workers were recently laid off. Some of them are finishing up a few things for a week or two before they leave, and others left the same day.

What do you say to an acquaintance who was just laid off? It’s a painful time for them, and I want to say “I’m sorry” or “Are there things I can do to help?” but I don’t want to come across as pitying them, or as saying “Ha-ha—I’m still here, and you’re not, sucks to be you!”

I feel awful for these long-term coworkers, but I’m not a close enough friend to actually know what they would need or appreciate. I also feel guilty about still having my job, but this isn’t a time to whine about me, it’s a time to reach out to them.

A card seems stupid and pointless. A nonconversation sounds awkward and awful. Ignoring it seems worse. A gift certificate or some such seems to assume that they are in dire financial straits.

Gentle Reader: What about taking each one to lunch, your treat, and not bringing up the subject?

The gesture itself shows that you care, without any of the undertones that you fear. You will then be able to adjust your tone to the way each is handling it and offer practical help if it seems relevant. Miss Manners would consider this especially graceful if your invitation is made or repeated after they have left, to show that they are missed and not forgotten.

Then, Abby:
DEAR ABBY: In this day of massive cutbacks and layoffs, please remind your readers that people who have recently lost their jobs need their friends now more than ever.

Having found myself in this situation, I know firsthand that people I thought were my friends truly are not. The phone calls and e-mails stopped almost immediately when word got out that I was laid off. Being treated as if I have some sort of contagious disease has been as bad as losing my job. I know what happened to me is a sign of the times and no reflection on me.

So -- to all of you who have chosen to no longer communicate with me because of my employment status: I am fine. I have a positive attitude. This will not keep me down. I realize that my possibilities are endless. However badly you treat me now, when you are in the same situation, I will be there for you.

To the wonderful man in my life, thank you for standing by me and giving me daily encouragement. To my family, whom I worship beyond belief, thank you for your understanding and continued support. You have made me the person I am, and because of you, I will succeed. -- UNEMPLOYED ... NOT DOWN AND OUT

DEAR NOT DOWN AND OUT: Thank you for so eloquently pointing out that people who have lost their jobs should not be abandoned, and that the support of friends and family is crucial.

Although family relationships are our primary source of emotional support, the relationships we form at work and our work-related contacts can become like an extended second family.

If these relationships are treated as expendable, it can often be as traumatic as the death of a loved one. When a death occurs, there can be as many as five distinct stages of grief. These are anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, when it comes to job loss, there is also the added element of fear.

This is why I am appealing to you, my readers. No one can ignore the fact that times have grown uncertain. Millions of good, hardworking individuals have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. More bad news may be on the way.

Now is the time for all of us to reach out a hand to encourage and help one another. People who are unemployed should not be made to feel they have been discarded. There is strength in numbers. We will all be stronger if we stand together and observe the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. -- LOVE, ABBY

I would venture that it's unlikely that most people see termination as a contagious disease and hope to dodge it by avoiding contact. Rather, like the writer of the first letter, they probably just don't know how best to express their support without trivializing or coming off as superior--afraid of causing offense, they choose instead to do nothing.

Abby compares the trauma of losing a job to the grief of losing a loved one--I think the reactions of friends, relatives and former colleagues in both situations are comparable: when we don't know what to say or do, we too often do nothing at all. While I'm glad the writer of the second letter has such strength and confidence, its clear that her friends' passivity and distance has made her pretty bitter towards them--to the extent that she's written them off as not "real" friends. This abandonment has redoubled the pain of her termination, and she's not going to take it!

A good reminder to us all that thoughts and intentions don't do much--it is words and more importantly actions that tell others we care about them and haven't forgotten or abandoned them.

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