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How to Help Someone Who Lost Their Job

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Losing a job is always a dispiriting experience, but losing a job when jobless claims have reached record highs can be especially traumatic. Competition among job seekers is stiffer than ever, and experiencing it during a global pandemic when you can’t even commiserate in person? Even worse. Still, there are ways to reach out to newly unemployed friends from a distance and make the experience slightly less awful.

As an associate staff writer at Wirecutter (a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products), I’m familiar with how to offer condolences. But to find out what assistance is most useful for the particular experience of losing a job, I spoke with three experts experienced at navigating the terrain of work and relationships. Whether you offer an ear, professional skills or even money, just remember to do it with sensitivity.

The obvious first stress for many people after losing work is how they’ll survive without the income. Offering financial help is a logical step, but writer and advice columnist John Paul Brammer urges that you consider your relationship to the person before making what can be an uncomfortable gesture. And even then, only give what you would feel OK not getting back. “There’s a lot of conventional wisdom about not loaning friends money or only loaning money that you can afford to never get back,” said Rachel Wilkerson Miller, a service journalist and the author of “The Art of Showing Up,” “and that still applies here.”

Since giving money to a friend directly can sometimes feel awkward, a good alternative is a gift card or virtual exchange. “If you know they’re uncomfortable about taking money, you can disguise it a bit,” said Alison Green, a work advice columnist and the author of “Ask a Manager.” She suggests a gift card to a grocery store; Ms. Miller and Mr. Brammer both like to Venmo their friends for things like drinks or dinner, and leave it to their discretion where the sum really goes. “The point here is to make them comfortable,” Ms. Miller said.

Finding new work is always hard, but especially so during a pandemic. If you have contacts in your newly unemployed friend’s industry, and they’ve indicated they’d be interested in your help, then passing along their résumé, sharing contacts or inviting them to virtual happy hours is hugely helpful, and it’s something you can do at any stage of your own career.

“Being junior does not preclude you from being able to help there,” Ms. Green said. Even if you’ve never actually worked with your friend, you can vouch for them in other ways. “You can say, ‘My friend is really smart and passionate about this field and has these experiences, you might want to speak with her,’” Ms. Green said. “You’re not saying, ‘She’s the best data analyst I’ve ever seen!’ The fact of the personal connection will often carry weight.”

Even if you work in entirely different fields, you can lend your expertise to help your friends, but offer skills rather than general assistance.

“The more specific you can be, the better,” Mr. Brammer said. So, if you’re great with words, offer to proofread their résumé. If you can do web design, help them make an online portfolio. If you have a fabulous wardrobe, offer to lend an interview outfit. And if you have the patience of a saint, offer to stay on hold on the phone with their local unemployment office for them.

If you have a well-equipped home office, “consider how many people lose resources, like a printer or a fax machine, which you might need for things like unemployment filing or Cobra,” Ms. Miller said. Offer up your equipment. Ms. Miller suggests loaning an old computer to a friend who’s had to return a work laptop. If you’re not sure what sort of tech resources they might need, just ask.

One way to help new parents who are unemployed is to offer to babysit, with Covid-19 precautions in place, such as wearing a mask or staying outside for the afternoon. No one can possibly perform well with a crying baby tugging at their sleeve. Take the burden off your friend’s shoulders for a few hours if you can.

Beyond the stress of finances and the slog of finding new work, losing a job is simply distressing. “Our work and our jobs are really tied in with our feelings of self worth, competence, our feelings of being valued,” Mr. Brammer said. “There’s a lot of shame oftentimes with being let go from a job because you wonder, ‘Could I have done better? Was I not good enough?’”

Luckily there are lots of ways to show that you still value your friend, even when things are hard. Flowers are an obvious choice (“It’s tried and true,” Ms. Miller said), and my colleagues at Wirecutter have tested for the best mail service, if you go that route. A chocolate box can never go wrong, either (I love the Beverly Hills-based chocolatier andSons for its chocolate care packages).

Even if your newly unemployed friend isn’t concerned about their livelihood while unemployed, consider what little luxuries they may have had to sacrifice.

“Sometimes people get laid off and they’re in an OK place with savings or a spouse’s income, and then it’s a question of what would they appreciate but not spend money on,” Ms. Green said. When I was between jobs, the first subscription I canceled was my gym membership; I would have loved a ClassPass gift card to take a few yoga classes (now available virtually) while I was at my most stressed. Or, perhaps your friend has decided Netflix or Spotify Premium is a luxury too expensive to maintain; you can pay for a few months of those, too.

And, of course, food has served as the great gift of crises since time immemorial.

“Right now procuring food and feeding yourself can be hard,” Ms. Miller said. “Sending that can make their life easier for the next few days. A Seamless gift card” if you’re far away, “or if you’re local, maybe a lasagna to leave out on their front porch.” Mr. Brammer added that whatever gift you choose to send your friend should make them feel better rather than pitiable.

“You don’t want to make your friend spiral,” he said. “So all those gifts should be accompanied with words or affirmation of some kind about their worth, to let them know that this period doesn’t define them.”

Long after the calls and cards dry up, your friend may be stuck in application purgatory for many more months.
“People check in immediately after, but not a few weeks or months later,” Ms. Green said. “So checking in on a regular basis and asking how they’re doing means a lot.”

There’s a way to do it that’s supportive rather than interrogating, though.

“Do not constantly ask them for updates,” Ms. Green said. “It might feel supportive to ask, ‘How is the search going?’ But it can make people feel bad, embarrassed that they don’t have something better to report.”

To give your friend the space to choose how much they disclose, Ms. Miller recommends just asking them about their week, or what they’ve been up to. “If they want to talk about it they’ll take those questions and tell you, and if not they’ll feel relieved they don’t have to.”

If you’re at a loss for words, Mr. Brammer said, the best thing you can do is just offer an ear. Just a few words need to be said: “I’m here to listen if you ever need.”

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