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How to Speak to Someone Who Has Been Fired

Employer giving employee the pink slip

Business etiquette sometimes catches up with us outside the office: in coffee shops, at a friend’s house, or even grocery shopping. An associate recently told me that she was dreading running into a former co-worker who had been abruptly fired the week before. What should she say to this person? How could she avoid making a touchy event worse?

The short answer: Be kind. Be hopeful. Be discreet. You can’t always control how or when you’ll encounter tricky situations, but with a little foresight you can prepare and eliminate awkwardness. Here are four tips to keep you on track.

Don’t ask for details. You may be tempted to confirm office gossip, but your nosiness will brand you as a busybody — and may dredge up painful feelings or anger for the person who has been fired or laid off.

Do show your compassion. A quick acknowledgment of the situation will erase the elephant in the room. You don’t need to offer condolences or sympathy, but you do need to be tactful. A layoff or a firing is a life-changing moment for the person involved, and chances are your words will be remembered. Simply say, “I heard that you won’t be in the office anymore. I hope you’re doing OK.”

Don’t be dismissive. Avoid saying, “I’m sure you’ll be back on your feet soon.” Even if you believe that to be true, it can feel flip — almost as if you’re brushing off the person’s experience.

Do be optimistic. Ask what your former colleague would like to do next. Do they plan on using the layoff as an opportunity to switch careers? Take a break? Apply for a dream job? Focus on the future and the good things that could come out the situation. By treating it as an opportunity instead of a liability, you can help them recast their opinion.

Approaching these situations with thoughtfulness and tact isn’t just right, it’s wise and compassionate. Our careers can last up to 50 years, and oftentimes we encounter the same group of professionals again and again; sometimes they’re climbing up the ladder, and at times they’re a few rungs down or recently fired. Proper etiquette and tact now may be appreciated — and remembered — for years to come.


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