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Lean on Me

How to support a friend who’s been laid off.

An arrangement of book, flowers, chocolates, and Starbucks and Netflix gift cards, along with a surfboard
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon.

Read more from Slate’s Helping Others Heal package. Find out how to support loved ones in the wake of divorce, the death of a friend or family member, or a traumatic birth.

A wise former colleague of mine once told me that everyone should be fired at least once in their life. In theory, I agree with her—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that. But in practice, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, and I really wouldn’t wish it on a friend. There’s nothing to be gained from losing your source of income and health insurance in a country without much of a social safety net. And yet, layoffs happen. Especially this time of year: The conventional wisdom goes that companies make cuts in Q4 because they’re trying to make their year-end budgets.

Regardless of your own employment status, which of course I hope is stable, the odds are that you’re bound to know someone who recently lost her job, and if you don’t now, you might soon. And because you’re a good friend, you’re probably going to want to do something to help. It can be a touchy subject, and it’s not always clear what’s your place and what’s overstepping, so I asked experts and people who have been through it for their advice on how to be a friend to a newly unemployed person.

Initial Support

When you hear that a friend’s been laid off, rather than worry about what you’re going to say to her in a text or when you see her, you might instead simply let her talk. “Especially right away, it’s not about giving them advice, it’s really letting them vent,” said Kerry Hannon, the author of Love Your Job and a career transition expert. “Just keep your mouth shut and listen.”

“Remember that they’ve lost more than their job,” said Rachel Wilkerson Miller, an editor at Vice’s life section and the author of the forthcoming The Art of Showing Up. “They may have also lost their routine, daily dose of human contact, access to technology (like a computer or printer), ability to take paid time off or to plan for the future, and/or a doctor or therapist who is in-network. The loss of those little things can be really destabilizing.”

According to Jenny Blake, the author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, the “ego hit” can also be especially hard: “It’s really important to just acknowledge how surprising, shocking, and stressful this might be and help with the processing side, not going right into problem-solving mode,” said Blake.

Doree Shafrir, a writer and co-host of Forever35, a podcast that frequently discusses self-care and mental health, emphasized that it’s important to be there for a friend “emotionally, yes, but also physically.” She went on, “In the immediate aftermath, if she’s up for it, take her out for dinner and/or drinks, or offer to bring over takeout and watch Netflix rom-coms together.” Of course, showing up physically is not always feasible. “If you’re not in the same city as she is,” Shafrir said, “flowers and a card are always appreciated, and I would also suggest FaceTiming more frequently than usual.”

Netflix gift card

Unemployment means hours and hours to catch up on all those Netflix Originals or stream some old favorites.

Flowers

They’re a classic pick-me-up for a reason.

I conducted a small survey of people who’d lost jobs and asked what people said to them during that time that they found the most helpful. “My best friend told me I was still a worthwhile and wonderful and beloved human even without my job,” said one respondent. “Take a few days or a week just to adjust and grieve,” another called out as the best advice she got. “The perfect next thing won’t slip away in that time.”

But also keep in mind that your friend may not want to talk about it. “Sometimes people just want to be left alone to wallow, and if that’s the case, then respect that!” Shafrir said. “I always appreciate it when friends text and say something like, ‘No need to respond, but I’m thinking of you, and I’m here if you want to chat or hang out.’ ”

Gauging what will help (and not annoy) your friend can make navigating how to help her through a job loss tricky. “Some people might like a drink, some people might like lunch, some people don’t want that at all,” said Lindsey Pollak, the author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace. She advised trying to let your friend determine how you can support her.

Professional Support

If you’ve waited until the initial dust has settled and determined that your friend is open to some job searching advice, you can take a macro or micro approach. Macro means helping her envision what she wants to do next—unemployment can be a “huge time of personal growth,” according to Blake—whereas micro is more about helping her with specific tasks, like proofreading her résumés and cover letters.

“This is a really ripe time for the person to take a pause and reflect on ‘What do I want?’ ” said Blake. “If you’re a friend or family member, don’t jump right away into what’s practical or possible—give the person space to vision creatively about what they really want and what would most honor their values and their strengths as they move into this next stage.”

Kimmy Benson, a respondent to my survey, recommended reading the author Brené Brown. She called Brown’s Daring Greatly and Rising Strong “two fantastic books that provided reassurance, perspective, and language to express why the loss was painful.”

Hannon, meanwhile, likes Simon Sinek, the author of Start With Why. “It helps you do that deep dive into ‘What do you want to be doing at this stage?’ ” she said. Having your own place to write things down and get inspired can help too. “I bought myself a notebook and wrote everything in it,” Kimberly, who responded to my survey and only wanted to be identified by her first name, said. “If I felt down, I could look back and see all I had done to find work.”

Then there are the more concrete ways you can help with a job search. “My aunt, who is in management in a different field, helped me revamp my résumé and coached me through cover letters and introductory emails,” remembered Andy Serbe, who responded to my survey. Pollak also recommended inviting friends to any networking events you have on the horizon. Nikki Duong, who was laid off from her media job in San Francisco last year, remembered being really thankful when a friend gave her a discount to the Adobe software that she previously got for free through work. “It was really nice to not have to worry about starting to spend $50 a month on Adobe suite when I need to have that for design tests and video tests and for doing my résumé,” she said.

Adobe Creative Cloud

For Photoshop, Illustrator, and the rest of the design software your friend might be missing out on.

Office 365

Includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and all the usual Office suspects.

Ongoing Support

What if you prefer to help your friend in a more personal way? Unemployment can be a long journey, and your friend might appreciate any effort you make toward low-cost or money-saving ways of bonding. Survey respondent Lauren said: “My then-boyfriend, now husband, took me to every free thing we could find to do in Washington, D.C., that winter. We saw Christmas trees, lights, Mount Vernon … so much fun free stuff because he knew I would need cheap distractions.”

You may also be able to help your friend adjust to her newly free schedule. “If you can occasionally catch up during the day or meet them for lunch or an afternoon coffee, it might mean a lot to them,” said Miller. She noted that talking about the job search constantly can be exhausting, so friends should “come to hangouts prepared with other things to talk about and other questions to ask them.”

Not every unemployed friend may be comfortable with material gifts, but some survey respondents pointed to specific items that helped them. “I worked out of a local Starbucks looking for work,” a survey respondent named Ryan said. “My wife bought me a Starbucks gift card for the coffee I drank during my search.” Hannon said “some really good chocolates” are always a nice gesture.

Starbucks gift card

Because coffee will keep the job seeker going.

Neuhaus Belgium chocolates

A sweet luxury for someone in need of a boost.

Those for whom the financial strain was less of an immediate concern pampered themselves. Some bought video games, and another survey respondent turned to nature instead and bought himself a surfboard: “Surfing (or trying to) was about the only thing that kept me sane,” he said.

Skyrim

For when your friend can’t bear to look at her resumé again.

Wavestorm swallowtail surfboard

It may seem impractical, but it’s one way to get out of the house.

Venmo can also be a great way to give your friend a gift without seeming like you’re doing something so crass as stuffing cash into her hands. “I found it really thoughtful and helpful and simple when people would just Venmo me money for coffee,” Duong said. Another survey respondent said she appreciated her friends “asking me to hang out or to dinner and paying for it without fuss.”

Bear in mind that it may take a while for your friend to get a new job. Miller said it took her eight months to find full-time work after she was laid off earlier this year. As Pollak pointed out: “Sometimes the first week or two you have a lot of support, and then a lot of people fade away. Don’t be that person!” To stay in touch for the long haul, Pollak recommended “passive gestures”: “little moments that say, ‘I’m here, I’m available if you need me, I’m thinking of you’ … and not falling off the face of the Earth is important.”