Running into former colleagues after a layoff
November 28, 2010 12:22 AM   Subscribe

Awkward public run-ins with coworkers who survived the company layoffs when you didn't - I need strategies for getting through the situation as gracefully as possible.

I live in a pretty small community where it's likely you'll run into people you know both in public, professional and random situations. About this time last year, the company I was working for (where I loved my work, was well paid and enjoyed my coworkers) finally started to feel the economic downturn.

Cut to the chase, they started laying off staff at the end of Q1 this year and I was one of the people whose position was cut. I've been doing everything to get back to work, but the stars haven't aligned for me yet.

In the meanwhile, I'm starting to feel a little like the jilted ex because I'd been really friendly with several of my coworkers there. Which is not typical at all for me, like I'm usually not social at work. Despite exchanging info and promising to keep in touch, none of my friends from this company have kept in touch with me -- including not returning calls or texts about getting together for lunch. I've only heard from one person, who is the relative of a long-time friend.

That part's been pretty hard and in the past week, I've had a couple of random encounters with people who I worked with at this company. Not my core group of buddies. But running into people who still have jobs there when they're shopping for the office holiday potluck (the only office holiday potluck I've ever enjoyed) and you're still unemployed? Not fun.

I know that I'm just going to have to get over feeling like these people were my real friends instead of work friends. But in the meanwhile, I also want to just be more composed in talking to people during these random encounters. Instead of feeling like a loser for being one of the people who got the boot. Or like the crazy ex who tells your friends how things have sucked since you broke up with them. My behavior during the layoff and accepting the severance package terms was pretty dignified and gracious on my end, and at the least I want to keep up the appearance of professionalism. Especially because one of the awkward encounters was right after I'd been at the gym and hadn't showered yet.
posted by green_flash to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Often people who have kept their jobs feel guilty about it. Also, they don't know what to say - you probably used to talk about work-related things for example. I think it's related to the concept of ignoring the bereaved because it's awkward.

If they are people you know quite well, ask after their family or something. Be upbeat about looking for work. Finish with a casual 'we should meet up for lunch/a drink sometime'.
posted by plonkee at 1:20 AM on November 28, 2010

hmm... some people may feel bad when they see you, but i doubt it.

I was laid off from my favorite job a few years ago. I still kept in contact with a lot of co-workers and for the past 4 years I have even attended their holiday work party.

I also worked at a company where 80 of 120 people were laid off... I was one who stayed. I kept in contact with a few coworkers and we both just chatted about how the company sucked for laying them off and referred them to some job sites or companies that might be hiring. Some conversations were just normal conversations, though. Like, "weather is cold, huh?"

I guess if you see people that you talked with at work, you could just say "Hi" and leave it at that? No need to stop and chat, really. Unless it's people you talked to a lot at work. Then you could just let them lead the conversation. Don't make it sound like work is exciting or that things are awesome.
posted by KogeLiz at 1:50 AM on November 28, 2010

If there's a reason to go beyond that first hi, turn the expectations around and ask them what they're doing at the moment. At least that's what I'd do to fill the awkwardness.
posted by Namlit at 3:11 AM on November 28, 2010

I was in your position early last year. The best advice I have is to just fake it. Situations like these are awkward for everyone involved, so don't take it personally if people don't want to talk to you beyond a 'hi.' Smile, don't bring up work, and try to lower your expectations of how convivial your meeting will be. On the plus side, I once had an ex-coworker buy me a beer when he heard I was still unemployed. So hey, free beer. On the other hand, no, none of these people are what I would consider friends today.
posted by Gilbert at 4:36 AM on November 28, 2010

I've been among the "survivors" at two jobs, and I think that survivor guilt may be part of the problem. People who are still working for the company may be worried that they'll say something stupid to you, so they don't say anything at all (which, yes, I know, is stupid). I've kept in touch with some folks who have been laid off when I haven't, and it can be a very touchy situation. For example, someone who's still employed at your old place might normally do some run-of-the-mill kvetching about work when talking to a co-worker. However, they might think that kvetching with you now would just be rude--they'd be complaining about something that you might still wish you had.
posted by TEA at 5:14 AM on November 28, 2010

I was recently laid off from a job where I really liked a great many of my coworkers. The hardest part about leaving was knowing that I probably won't remain close with most of them now that we don't see each other every day. That doesn't mean the friendships aren't real... I think we just don't have enough in common to carry the friendship outside of work.

I think plonkee has a point that perhaps the people you've run into feel awkward and don't know what to say to you, and the only thing that is going to make them relax is to see that you are doing ok and not feeling too sensitive about your situation.

Greet them enthusiastically with a "Hiiiiiiiii! How are you?" and a big hug (or a firm handshake, depending on your professional culture. We do hugs here in the midwest.) Ask how things are back at the office. Ask about mutual friends. Ask about their kids or that hobby you remember they always liked to talk about.

Don't be embarrassed about your lack of work. Everybody knows it's a tough economy and will be likely to commiserate rather than look down. He/she probably knows several people who've been pounding the pavement for awhile now. Just try to be somewhat upbeat... tell 'em you're still doing ok, enjoying your free time while it lasts, have had a few promising interviews, things are going fairly well.

Basically, if you're glad to see them, seem to be doing ok and can get the conversational ball rolling with a few questions, your encounters shouldn't be too awkward. When you start to run out of things to talk about just tell them you've got to get going and that it was "great to see you, tell so-and-so I said hi!"

I'm not good at social stuff and I've pretty much resigned myself that I'm probably not going to see most of my old coworkers again. I'm in the process of adding as many as I can as friends on Facebook, and it's been nice to keep up with the lives of those who are active, and keep in touch via the comments. I never thought I'd be interested in Facebook but now that I've got far-flung family and friends it does make me feel more connected to these folks and not like they are people I "used to know."

I've also got a lot of email addresses and plan to try to stay in touch via the occasional email forward... sending and receiving humorous (non-offensive) emails with a little comment helps you feel connected in a small way. Obviously not everyone enjoys this sort of thing but if you exchanged stuff like this on the job you probably know which ones are cool with it.

My husband's father is career military so my in-laws moved around for probably 20 years, making and leaving friends all over the country in the process. One of the ways military families keep in touch is with the annual Christmas letter. Some people find them annoying, especially if they are too braggy or trainwreckish, but if you can pull off something humorous or just a not-too-lengthy positive update along with well wishes to everyone, it might be another good way to stay connected. At least send Christmas cards if you don't feel comfortable doing a letter.

I just think it would feel a lot less weird to run into people if you've remained in touch in some small way so they continue to think of you as somebody they know rather than a stranger with a familiar face that they don't know how to interact with any more.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:49 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got laid off in May of 2009 on maternity leave and still haven't found anything yet (gave up and went back to school), and I still keep in touch with old coworkers, but mostly via Facebook - so it's not a very close relationship, although we've all met for drinks a few times. After the layoffs, most people confided that the work environment turned terrible and they had no choice but to stay even though they hated waking up in the morning.

I actually saw our CEO a few months later and tapped him on the shoulder. It was mildly awkward, but we had a short conversation and didn't bring up work at all (we both really like hockey, he at one point ran the Boston Garden). Would I have rather avoided that? Maybe, but I forced myself to be personable and show him I was not at all bitter about being laid off. You know, in case they started hiring again.

I figure I'd rather have former coworkers and bosses see me as being unflappable and not at all embarrassed about the situation - after all, they're still quite a good resource for networking and references. If I was you, I'd try to come off like you're still happy and feel successful, even if you have to fake it 'till you make it.
posted by kpht at 6:50 AM on November 28, 2010

You've got the touch of death, which is why former coworkers who promised to stay in touch are not staying in touch.

I was lucky when I was laid off, in that many of my professional contacts view the current iteration of management at my former employer as being incompetent at best, and I was a member of a core group of business development people who were all let go. So we can talk to each other and give each other support.

When you yourself encounter former coworkers, there's nothing you can really do to prevent the exchange from being wretched and awkward (until you get a new job, that is). So, just smile, look them in the eye, say "hi" and keep on walking or shopping.

On the other hand, if you're feeling more confident, ask for help. "Yes, I'm still looking for that perfect job. If you know of anyone looking for XYZ, could you pass on my name?"
posted by KokuRyu at 7:14 AM on November 28, 2010

I've run into this a couple of times. My supervisor was laid off, and about 6 months later he was sitting in front of me at a baseball game. Mortifying.

I also was doing work at a government aid office when one of my recently laid off friends (same industry, but different employer) walked in and stood in line to sign up. Equally mortifying.
posted by gjc at 7:28 AM on November 28, 2010

Yeah, survivor guilt. I had one coworker start crying when I told her I'd been laid off. While I haven't contacted any of the folks I once knew who were laid off, I was Happy to talk with them when they called me (at the workplace where we'd both worked) in a networking way. It was a little awkward because it's sucky all around. But as people above point out, it's totally ok to ask how people/their families are, and to contact people yourself in either a networking or just friendly way.

I'm guessing most of the friendliest of the folks you knew there miss you and wish they could reach out without it seeming weird because they still work there and you might think they're jerks. The holidays are a great time to reach out and just say hi, even if it's just in an email - I think you'll feel better if you do so with some of the folks you enjoyed most.

And to reply to your actual question, it's fine to just say, "hi, how are you?" in a casual way when you see the folks you didn't know that well. You'll feel better about it if you do so in a positive, confident way as if you know that a way better opportunity is just around the corner.
posted by ldthomps at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2010

So sorry you're going through this.

There's a couple factors happening here. There's survivors guilt and a "touch of the death" as someone mentioned. And then there's the faint whiff of "this person was probably really let go for a reason and the economy was just an excuse to can their ass" which sometimes does seem to be the case but I really don't think companies like to do this.

The best things to be are friendly, upbeat, positive, slightly circumspect about what you're doing now -- not too much information, not too little. Very inquisitive about their well-being and reaffirm that you'd love to hear if they hear of anyone hiring. Because you know what? When you're on the outside, it is harder to hear "through the grapevine" when another company might be hiring. So, you have to keep up your network and your network can be comprised of former coworkers.

So, short answer: keep your chin up, carry on and if you don't act awkward, things won't be awkward.
posted by amanda at 9:56 AM on November 28, 2010

I've been on both sides of this. Knowing that it is awkward for both parties can go a long way towards getting you past it. They're feeling just as awkward as you are, if not worse.

Uncouple your emotions from this issue. When you run into someone, just treat it like a thing that happened. Pretend that you quit, if it helps you get to the right head space. Ask them how they are doing, how the job is going - all the usual questions you would ask them, if you had quit.

My guess is that you work buddies are picking up on your emotional state, and find it easier to quietly end contact. This situation is hard for them, too.

Many work relationships are predicated upon zero need to grapple with emotional issues. When emotional issues do get put on the table, a lot of work relationships simply follow the course of least resistance and dissolve.

My advice is not to contact them until your feelings about this situation have cooled to neutral. Give it a month, six months, a year, however long it takes. Then send an email like, "Wow, I've been so busy, sorry I didn't contact you! How are you? Still having lunch at [that one place]?"
posted by ErikaB at 10:44 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been laid off, and also left companies on my own steam, and the net result is pretty similar: I don't keep up with most of those folks, despite having pleasant working relationships with them. The layoff can create some awkward feelings, but work friends are not always going to be non-work friends.

I'd also add that I hope you've at least kept up with whoever can provide you with a reference (former boss, whatever).
posted by zompist at 6:23 PM on November 28, 2010

Thanks for your personal experiences and observations. It's probably right that I have a bit of the Touch of Death about me and that makes it awkward/hard to keep acting like nothing's changed. Also the comment about uncoupling my emotions is dead on. I read an article earlier this week about coming to terms with a layoff:

Early on, though, there is a strong feeling of abandonment. Separation from the company that nurtured you. Provided comfort, friendships and a sense of work happiness. You didn’t just lose a job. You lost a community. A culture.

And there’s pain in realizing that the community is still working without you. That your participation was optional. That’s a hard pill to swallow.

Especially if you felt you gave your life to that company. The layoffs came. And they decided to drop you at the curb.

No random coffee shop or grocery stores (which suuuucked because it was people shopping for the office Thanksgiving potluck) run-ins this week. But I'll keep fake it till you make in mind for those run-ins.
posted by green_flash at 6:55 PM on December 2, 2010

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