4 Things NEVER to Say to Someone Who Just Lost a Job

Nearly 9.4 percent of the working population is unemployed--and that rate is even higher among traditionally underrepresented groups. What should you avoid saying to people who've been handed the pink slip?

An estimated 9.4 percent of the working population are unemployed, many of whom are victims of the current recession. Whether it's because of a corporate restructuring or an outright firing, being let go is always a psychological blow.


Click here to read DiversityInc's "Things Not to Say" series.

But for people from traditionally underrepresented communities, who often have fewer financial safety nets and whose family members may also be out of work, losing a job can be terrifying. That's because their unemployment rates are often much higher than that of whites.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's most recent figures, jobless rates for Black workers hit 15 percent, a 2-percent increase over the previous month. Latino unemployment rates reached 11.3 percent in February, a 7-percent jump from January. Whites, on the other hand, had lower unemployment-rate increases, from 6.9 percent in January to 7.3 percent in February and 8 percent in April.

Although experts agree that saying nothing to an unemployed coworker, friend or family member is inappropriate, saying the wrong thing can be downright devastating during this stressful time. So to avoid a slip of the tongue, here are four things NEVER to say to someone who's been fired or laid off.

1. "Why didn't you ..." or "You should have ..."

Don't be judgmental or place blame. Joblessness is likely to happen to everyone at least once in a career. Likewise, don't get angry and lash out, especially if it's a spouse or family member who makes the comment to you.

People who have a job change go through a series of emotions, ranging from anxiety to depression. They need support, so placing blame or getting angry only "diminishes people's competence and effectiveness," explains Ed Teyber, professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. This is counterproductive to someone who needs to be motivated to find a new job.

2. "You have lots of experience. You'll be fine."

Avoid being dismissive of the situation. Instead, be realistically optimistic, encouraging the individual to network with new people who could help in a job search.

This is important because it could take months to find employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,3.7 million people had been unemployed for 27 weeks or more as of April 2009. 

Also, don't assume that an educated person with management-level experience would have any easier time finding a new job than someone with less experience. This recession has hit all levels and all sectors. Assumptions "may make [jobless people] defensive," warns Jack Aiello, professor of social and organizational psychology at Rutgers University, "especially if you don't know what their industry is like."

3. "It's happening to everyone. It's not the end of the world."

While life is not all about work, for some people, their careers or jobs play a major role in defining who they are. "For a lot of us, it's part of our identity," Teyber says. "It's who we are, our self-worth, how we make a difference, how we make meaning with our lives. [Our job or career] becomes the way we know people, have friendships, network and are engaged in the world." So to react as if a job loss is not life-changing only diminishes how important the individual's career has been.

4. "Hey, at least you can collect unemployment."

Although the federal stimulus package contains cash for an expansion of unemployment benefits, eligibility for compensation still varies from state to state. Ordinarily, those who are at fault for their own termination are ineligible for unemployment benefits. People who voluntarily resign are also less likely to receive unemployment compensation. But even for the fraction of individuals eligible, the funds are usually significantly less than a paycheck.

For example, in a metro area such as New York City, an individual making $55,000 a year could expect to receive a maximum of $405 in weekly benefits.

Unemployment benefit funds will not ease the full financial stress of becoming jobless. In fact, unemployment compensation is only a temporary fix. Given the poor state of the economy, it's possible that an out-of-work individual won't land another job before his or her 26 weeks of unemployment funds run out.

So if you know someone who has lost a job, save your stress-adding comments and, instead, offer support.

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