Startup Life/Opinion/

What not to say to someone who has just been laid off

Think about comforting someone who has been laid off like you’d comfort someone who has lost family

By Anh-Tho Chuong Degroote

Anh-Tho Chuong Degroote

A few years ago, I lost my dad to a kitesurfing accident. 

Beyond losing one of the most important people in my life, the most painful thing I had to “survive” was how people reacted around me. It was even featured in the local newspaper; there was no way to keep what happened totally private.

Most of the time, I was angry and scandalised by what people said, and what my family had to cope with. At my father’s funerals, I seriously considered hiding in the bathroom so that I didn’t have to listen to people anymore. It was the longest day of my life. 

Grief is part of the human experience. But we sometimes forget that it’s not only a word that applies to losing a family member or a friend, or breaking up with a partner. It can also apply when you get fired. 

With the current downturn and rise in layoffs, I’ve seen a lot of grief in the past few months. 

Unfortunately, it looks like the tech slowdown won’t be over soon. Many more people will likely lose their jobs. Companies will fail. How can we best take care of the people around us who are grieving? 

Therefore, I thought I’d share my notes, in case you have no idea what to say to someone who grieves. These are personal, and not prescriptive. Take them as “food for thought”.

Don’t make it about you

Meeting someone who’s grieving can trigger a lot of deep insecurities on your side. To name a few: 

Insecurity #1: I don’t want to make them feel jealous

It’s a typical mental loop: “I can’t say I’m happy / getting engaged when this person just experienced the exact opposite” loop.

Insecurity #2: I feel guilt. I don’t want them to hate me

I’ve seen this a lot in the work setting — you might be the founder letting someone go or the investor that has to tell a struggling company you won’t follow on. 

Insecurity #3: What if this happens to me? 

Your friend has been dumped or fired, and you think it can happen to you too, so it terrifies you. Therefore you ask a lot of questions or details, out of curiosity.

If you care at all, don’t make any conversation about you and your insecurities. And don’t make the person who’s grieving comfort you. If you can’t handle it, don’t meet. People who grieve are struggling to get up, eat and keep going with their lives. It’s hard enough.

Avoid platitudes

If your colleague just got fired, and you don’t know the person that well but would like to show your support, keep it short and sweet. Don’t send them a long text about your own vision of life, or a digest of the “seven stages of grief”, even if you just read it and you found it interesting. This is textbook unsolicited advice. 

If you grew close to this person, spend some time crafting a personalised message, or just focus on making them smile, even if it’s just for a minute. 

For instance, remind them of the inextricable situations at work they won’t have to deal with anymore, send a picture of a fun time you had together, or a silly private joke you used to make. 

Don’t make your timeline their timeline

Making your timeline their timeline is just a more subtle way of making it about you. 

Each person deals with loss differently. You might deal with loss by making  an action plan: “I’m going to exercise every day”; “I’m going to forget about it by binge working”; “I’m going to forget that person by dating a lot”. 

You might want to help by suggesting a plan or by giving a new rhythm to the new “normal” this person has to deal with. If they’re someone laid off from a startup, you might offer to introduce them to a recruiter or to another startup you know that is hiring. If your friend pushes back or doesn’t follow up, there’s a high chance they are simply not ready yet. 

Ask yourself — is the help and support you’re offering about making you feel better and in control, or actually helping your friend? Respect their own internal timeline.

If after reading this you really don’t know what to say, my very personal advice is: 

  • Acknowledge you have no idea how they feel;
  • Acknowledge you might not say the right thing; 
  • Don’t pressure them to respond — they receive loads of messages, so give them space;
  • Find a way to show up or make them smile, even for a second, if you can.

Once again, I don’t want to provide a universal template for unique and intimate situations. 

In my case, a simple message like this would have given me more comfort than the litany of speeches, phone calls and long texts I had to endure: 

“Hey, I heard about the news. I don’t have the right words and please don’t feel obligated to reply. Just know that if I can do something, big or small, now or in the future, I’m just a text away.”

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