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Thoughts on layoff etiquette

Posted by Robin Abrahams  April 16, 2009 07:11 AM

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I'm still looking for your stories, dilemmas, awkward situations around layoffs (one's own or other people's) so send them in, if you've got them! You can e-mail me if you don't want to post in a public forum.

Here's a few layoff etiquette tips inspired by the comments that have already come in, and yesterday's chat:

1. We need to come up with a better conversation starter than "What do you do?" Or at least, a good segue in case the person we've just asked says, "I'm looking for work right now."

2. As with those engaged in any long-term project--remodeling a bathroom, writing a dissertation, selling a house--don't ask job seekers how the job search is going every time you see them. If there's news, you'll know.

3. Don't ask questions that imply you're blaming the victim: "That's always been a volatile industry, hasn't it [so what did you expect]?" or "Wow, I thought someone with a law degree could always find a job [you must be a bigger loser than I knew]." This is like asking someone who was just diagnosed with cancer about their eating habits. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike; stop trying to find meaning in bad fortune, and just sympathize.

4. If you've been laid-off, let your friends know what they can do to help, whether it's to proof your resume, go jogging with you in the mornings, or pray for you. Asking for concrete acts of support is a kindness, because it's so terrible to know that a friend is hurting and that there's nothing you can do. Let your friends know, too, when and how you want to talk about what happened, your job search, etc.

5. Maintain boundaries. Help and ask for help, but don't give or ask for confidential company information. Don't recommend a friend for a job you know they're not qualified for. Don't expect "survivors" at the old company to be willing to listen to you trash the organization. Don't start selling makeup or baskets or lingerie to make ends meet and try to guilt-trip your laid-off friends into buying them. (Or puppies. According to Marianne in the earlier thread, "My husband is being laid off this summer and the announcement was made several weeks ago. Since that time, one of his co-workers had a litter of Black Lab puppies. She continues to try to talk my husband into buying one (to the tune of $700!!!), despite knowing full well that he is being laid off." Wow.) Hard times make people easily spooked, but don't jeopardize your reputation--personal or professional--with an indiscreet or desperate move.

What's your advice? Better yet, what are your stories?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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53 comments so far...
  1. I've got one to add-
    When a friend, family member or co-worker let's you know that have been laid-off, treat that information as confidential unless they let you know it is OK for you to talk about it with other people. Sometimes people are embarrased or angry about the situation and prefer to communicate the information on a need-to-know basis.

    Posted by bettyB April 16, 09 09:06 AM
  1. Here's another one -
    Not everyone gets a big severance package, lots of folks are laid off with only their last paycheck. Be understanding if now they can't just "go out for a quick drink/bite with the gang". Even if the person had had a few months' worth of emergency funds saved up, things will be really tight for them. Take a look around at low-cost activities for all to enjoy together - it will save you money, too!

    Posted by TAF April 16, 09 10:42 AM
  1. If you are laid off, and ask for help, please be prepared to follow through on the next steps you and your helper have agreed upon. A lot of people have been in the same position and understand the etiquette outlined above, and are more than happy to help. Everyone knows networking provides an advantage.

    My friend told me she was laid off and specifically asked for my help. Happy to help, I asked for her resume and told her I'd immediately start looking around my organization and get the word out to my network. She said she'd send her resume right away. I am discerning when reaching out to promote someone as a candidate as it is a personal endorsement and I have a tight knit professional circle that only sends truly qualified candidates to each other.

    The resume never arrived, the job seeker didn't provide updates, I spent a lot of time and energy, and opportunities for the job seeker were missed. I'm not going to hound someone for a resume--they either want a job or don't. But I've learned a valuable lesson--if you have been asked to help, make sure you have everything in hand and it meets your standards before putting your professional reputation in play.

    Posted by yupokay April 16, 09 11:52 AM
  1. Don't assume the person has a lot of free time. especially if they have children but not only. A job search is time consuming as it should be and is a job itself. And they may now be taking on more responsibility at home with chores and errands etc.

    TAF thank you I can't tell you how many inconsiderate invites I have had about just going out for a drink/bit/shopping when both me and my husband were laid off and we are stuggling to pay our childs medical bills. Every cent count.

    Posted by RM April 16, 09 11:52 AM
  1. 'We need to come up with a better conversation starter than "What do you do?" Or at least, a good segue in case the person we've just asked says, "I'm looking for work right now." '
    "What do you do" is straightforward and works just fine. If the person says they have been laid off or is looking for work, you can respond with, "What did you do?" or "What are you looking for?"

    Posted by Bony Melon April 16, 09 11:55 AM
  1. Go easy on the advice when talking with a friend or former co-worker who has been laid off. If you ask us how the job search is going, and we say it is tough out there, the last thing we want to hear is "why don't you try this", or "why don't you try that", or the famous, "well, you know looking for a job is a full-time job in itself." The truth is we have probably tried all of those things, and we know just how hard the job search is. We are, after all, the one searching for a job. Unless you have a concrete job lead, I think it is more helpful to simply listen to what the job seeker is saying and offer some emotional support or validation.

    Posted by vconnel April 16, 09 12:02 PM
  1. Its somewhat off the subject, but I find it completely repugnant that this lady is breeding dogs when dogs of all kinds (including many purebreeds--I just adopted a purebred Boston Terrier) are being dumped at shelters in record numbers due to the economy.

    Not to mention the fact, that she isn't a good breeder. Good breeders don't breed when there is no market for the dog (in this economy buying puppies has severely dwindled)--most good breeders keep a waiting list. Good breeders try to IMPROVE the breed, not just find a way to make money off of Muffy. Minimally, a breeder would interview YOU and they would never sell their dog to someone who is about to be unemployed. Lastly, a dog from a top-notch breeder who guarantees their dogs usually charges a minimum of $1,000 and often more like $2,000. This woman is a backyard breeder looking to make a quick buck. Sick considering all the animals (puppies too!) being put down right now.

    Robin says: I couldn't agree more!

    Posted by Alyssa April 16, 09 12:51 PM
  1. Kudos for #2!! I hope Miss Conduct provides a great answer to somebody that persists in asking that constantly, even when you've told them politely that you'd as soon not be asked that all the time. And, when somebody does find a job, please don't ask them how the job is every single time you see them! It really gets tiresome. That happened to me and no matter how many times I asked them to please stop asking me that, they would persist. I always want to say, "what are you, my mother?" but I never can.

    Posted by moi April 16, 09 12:55 PM
  1. Adding more:

    Understand that looking for work is a tough full time job. It can be draining and demeaning. While we appreciate occasional breaks, your friendship and support, please be sensitive to making demands on our time.

    Offer to cut-back or eliminate gift exchanging commitments (birthdays, holidays et cetera). Offer to host events that the currently unemployed person usually hosts.

    Be supportive, listen as they vent, encourage them and highlight strengths you see in them.

    Posted by Tivo.Junkie April 16, 09 01:04 PM
  1. After you've been laid off "key" the owners Mercedes on your way out :-)

    Posted by Irish-lad April 16, 09 01:27 PM
  1. Try not to say things like, "I'm sorry for your loss". Tons of people said that to me and then shortly after my job loss my mom passed away. I never knew if people were saying they were sorry for the loss of my mom or the loss of my job.

    It was painful either way.

    Posted by Jackie April 16, 09 01:43 PM
  1. Here's a different twist on layoff etiquette - when talking with close friends who are still employed, don't dismiss their work hardships as trivial simply because they have a job. Many companies are taking advantage of this economic climate and placing ever increasing, unrealistic demands on their current employees, knowing that people are too frightened to quit, no matter how terrible the work environment becomes.

    While I empathize greatly with those who have lost their jobs, the last thing I want to hear right now is, "At least you still have a job. You have nothing to complain about at all."

    I've been unemployed and homeless and I can tell you now, that being employed in this environment can be just as heart wrenching and stressful as not...for different reasons.

    Posted by tired April 16, 09 02:24 PM
  1. I recently lost my job and have had many people tell me that maybe I should just enjoy the time off and have another baby. If I wanted to have another baby or didn't want to work, why did they think I was working in the first place?

    Posted by Lea April 16, 09 02:25 PM
  1. I cannot tell you how many of those stupid home parties I have been invited to, and every single time, I seethe with anger! I've been out of work for 7 months you REALLY think I want to go to your Lia Sophia party and spend what few pennies I have left on some cheap jewelery with a bunch of bored housewives who barely have the wear-with-all to change out of their pajamas?! NO! Do I want to go to your stupid Arbonne party and spend $25 on an eyeliner from a company I've never heard of?! Nor do I want to join your pyramid scheme because "it's a great way to make money while I look for a job" No! And furthermore, if you were my FRIEND, you would not even bother to ask me because you know I don't have a job! Aaargh! Seriously, i've been invited to at least 20 of these stupid things, next invite I get is going to be shoved up the senders @#$#%

    Posted by Kate April 16, 09 02:26 PM
  1. I have this one friend who is just FULL of bright ideas. Some of her greatest hits:

    - You don't have to work, why don't you just stay home? (Umm, i work because I like to, and if I have no kids, why would I make my husband support me for no reason?)

    - Ooh, you make really good cupcakes, why don't you open a bakery?! (Umm, just because my cream cheese frosting is good, and I don't burn the mix from the duncan hines box does not make me a baker, nor can I afford to shell out $25,000

    -Now would be a great time to have kids! ("Right, boredom and not being able to find a job is always a gerat reason to bring a life into the world. No pressure there!

    Posted by cupkate April 16, 09 02:32 PM
  1. How about a little etiquette for hiring companies? I mean, is it really necessary to have a 35 page application, plus make me cut and paste my resume (Which takes forever to re-format) and also attach my resume? Should it take me 1.5 hours to apply for an admin job? As it stands, on an average day it can take me up to 3 hours to apply for 3 jobs! I think not. It's tedious and insulting, not to mention gotta love when you click to the next screen and get the "There is a problem with your submission, please start again" message. And how about temp agencies treating job seekers with a little dignity? If i've been in a particular field for 10 years, do I really need to take a 3 hours skills test? Also, when i call you about a job you have up for grabs, can you maybe not put me on hold every 45 seconds? It's rude and demoralizing.

    Posted by Tracey April 16, 09 02:38 PM
  1. This comment is meant for bosses everywhere.
    If you're the boss and facilitate the lay-off, please try and be more sensitive and don't act like nothing happened when you run into a former employee. I realize that you, as the boss with the job, health insurance, income, bonus, etc., don't have a clue as to what it feels like to have your world turned upside down and the financial rug pulled out from under you, but somewhere in that unfeeling, executive heart, there must be some clue as to what's going on in the world right now.
    I recently had been let go from a job and my former boss approached me as though nothing had happened (after six years of working for her). There were a number of things I would have liked to have said when she (in her friendliest tone) asked how I was doing. I just said "fine, thank you" and walked away.

    Posted by Kathy April 16, 09 03:27 PM
  1. #12 - Thank you!
    While I feel terribly for the people in my group that were laid off (except for one, who now has severance until his planned retirement date and is now quite happy), those of us left behind are being burried by their work. We have no option but to take on more and more. I'm grateful that I am still working, but do feel that I'm being taken advantage of because of my limited options in the current economy.

    Posted by finny April 16, 09 03:47 PM
  1. I retired "what do you do (for work)" as a conversation starter years ago, during GOOD financial times. Why? Lots of people abhor their daytime employment and don't want to talk about it. Much more interesting conversation starters are:

    "What do you do for fun?"
    "Did you hear anything this week that absolutely astounded you?"
    "What do you do AFTER work?"
    "What is your favorite thing to eat?"
    "Did you get out in the sun yesterday?"
    "What is the oddest thing you've ever eaten?"
    "What is your least favorite food?"
    "What's your favorite movie or TV show?" (or musical artist, etc)

    I've used all of the above and had FAR more interesting conversations with people than hearing about last week's marketing proposal or the PowerPoint they needed to deliver. Life is so full of more interesting things than work!

    Posted by K April 16, 09 04:37 PM
  1. #12. I can appreciate that those left behind in jobs are overworked. But I propose it be an off-limits conversation topic. I can't give someone who is employed in their chosen field any sympathy right now...for I would rather be overworked than moving back home for the first time since i left for college 7 yrs ago.

    Posted by veronica April 16, 09 05:25 PM
  1. When a coworker is laid off, be reasonable with what you expect them to complete and wrap up prior to leaving. Once we get our notice, it's reasonable to expect us to act professionally and to tie up a few loose ends. It's not reasonable to expect us to continue to work overtime and weekends and to complete major unfinished projects. And after we're laid off, please don't call us to ask us if we remember that project we were working on. You laid us off; you figure it out.

    Posted by johnson02118 April 16, 09 06:58 PM
  1. To K: cheers!! I think "what do you do for a living" or "how's work" is the most boring question.

    Posted by moi April 16, 09 07:34 PM
  1. #14, I started off completely agreeing with you about the stupid parties that we all get invited to and then feel obligated to buy some stuff we are probably not going to use. That was constructive and addresses the purpose of this thread. However, you lost me when you started ranting about bored housewives. I am a "housewife" and am proud of that choice. I don't wear pj's all day and am not in the least bit bored. I don't insult your decision to work, why insult and generalize mine. Based on your little rant/tyraid, I can see that if I were your boss and the layoff was between you and the guy with his thumb up his a$$, I'd pick you. The bitter, opinionated, fresh lady with the "holier than thou" attitude. Matter of fact, I don't even get why anyone would invite such a bitter person to a party.

    Posted by Mae April 16, 09 08:15 PM
  1. I think its natural for people to ask how your job is going. Many are well meaning, or even interested, so I think its easy enough to say "good", "fine", or "ok", and then moving on to asking them something else. When things aren't going well for me, I often say "its a job" or "it pays the bills". For me ,the job I got after being laid off doesn't easily "pay the bills", right now, so I find that question troubling because I don't want to appear ungrateful for having a job.

    Posted by MLC April 16, 09 08:45 PM
  1. Chill out on showing me the silver lining, OK? Thanks.

    I just got laid off. I hope I can feed my kids. I hope I'll work again some day. I hope the stress doesn't wreck my marriage. Etc., ad nauseum. Sure, I'll pick myself up and dust myself off - eventually - and get on with my life. But in the meantime, I'm freaked out and miserable, and while I don't expect you to hold my hand while I sob or anything, and I really am trying to move forward, I really just want some empathy. I don't want to hear about how now I can find something better, or it could be so much worse, or at least my husband has benefits, or any other little spin you want to put on this to turn it into sunshine and lollipops. I just got LAID OFF. I don't have to be happy about it. Please don't try to make me.

    The preceding is directed, I have to admit, at my best friend, who is the most wonderful person in the world and I love her deeply, but who immediately goes into Silver Lining mode when anything negative is mentioned and it makes me want to scream. Sometimes, I'd just like five minutes to be bummed out, and not hear about how it's all really such a wonderful thing that something rotten just happened to me. I've recovered from last year's layoff, and - this is for all of you who are in the midst of that particular little hell - actually my life IS much better now and I'm doing fine both career-wise and financially. So, yeah, I get that she was right. But it's really frustrating to feel like you have to put on a happy face for your closest friend when the bottom has fallen out of your world.

    So that's my advice: let your laid-off or layoff-fearing friends express their fear and loathing, and don't work too hard to give them the happy talk. They need the space to be unhappy for a while.

    Posted by MelissaJane April 16, 09 09:08 PM
  1. Although I'm fine with hearing "what do you do?" as a conversation opener -- because I have a professional identity even when I don't have an employer -- I tend not to use it because 1) other people might be embarrassed 2) I haven't worked out how to respond if they say "I'm an at-home parent". Logically I guess it should go straight to how many children, ages, etc but this world is so foreign to me that I tend to drop the ball. In a professional environment I might tend to use "what industry / field / business are you in?"

    But I wonder if we aren't somehow taking the conversation starters too literally & expecting that people _should_ get personal. What about questions related to the context, like, "have you tried the plum cake?" I gave up on "how do you know the hostess?" after startling a couple of one hostess' psychiatric patients...

    Posted by Stanwell April 16, 09 11:22 PM
  1. I was let go from my job 5 years ago and then diagnosed with MS, so I can no longer negotiate the commute to a job, even if I could get one. To make matters worse, my parents both passed away just 18 days apart this February and March, so I am faced with $20,000 in funeral home bills. Do not make the mistake that I did. I asked a wealthy friend for a loan and she turned me down, saying that her inheritance was tied up in a trust. At least, I own my parents' house now. I am struggling to keep warm, as I've turned the heat down to 66 degrees.

    Posted by Anne April 17, 09 01:05 AM
  1. I'm unemployed right now. I tell people exactly that. I do not have extra time on my hands because job hunting is indeed a full time job. My husband is on FMLA right now. It's tough for both of us. Thank you # 16 (Tracey) for making me laugh at the ridulousness of those long winded applications!

    Posted by Jean April 17, 09 01:48 AM
  1. Show that you're interested in aspects of the person besides what they do for a living. Questions that begin with "what do you think of" whether about the weather, news items, sports, a recent TV show or movie, etc. Comment onsomething you know you have in common like belong to the same church, going to the Y, having a child on the same team and participating in community meetings are always good starters.

    You can always start out with a personal observation about them (in the Y locker room) like "you look like you had a hard workout today" or if they're are wearing a school logo shirt comment on that.

    To varying degrees (as others have noted) people's identity is related to their work. Obviously there's more to someone than what they do for a living. Show you recognize and appreciate that.

    Posted by HalBrown April 17, 09 06:37 AM
  1. My comment builds on MelissaJane's: I have a friend whose idea of layoff empathy is to tell me that she is jealous of my situation, and that I should enjoy all of my free time. I know this friend's heart is in the right place, and that she, (like me previously), works in a stressful big law firm that demands long hours, but seriously, this is probably the most insulting and degrading thing you can say to someone who has lost their job. And to add insult to injury, she has said it repeatedly to me. Things have thankfully worked out for me, and I am starting soon at a great midsize firm in town, but when your friend is competing with literally hundreds of other laid-off workers for the same 5 jobs, how can you say you are envious of this situation?

    Furthermore, being laid off does not mean you have loads of free time, and it is rude to imply as such. Have I had more free time? Yes, because I wasn't working 8:30 am -9 pm. But I spent a good chuck of my days applying for jobs, going on interviews, writing thank you notes, etc.

    My only other piece of advice is to emphasize that being laid off shouldn't be treated like a stigma, and just because someone was laid off doesn't mean that they are bad at their job. This is mostly a problem that I've encountered with my parent's generation, but nonetheless people need to understand that when literally millions of people are losing their jobs across this country, logic says that they weren't all terrible employees that were just being kept around because times were good. Consequently, you should be open about having been laid off, because in this economy networking is your best chance of getting another job. If you treat it like a stigma, the people around you will too, which wont help your situation.

    Posted by RIFed_and_miffed April 17, 09 08:58 AM
  1. #23 - Not all of us have that "choice." If I could "choose" between work and housewife, hey I'd go with housewife! I don't like it when housewives ask me what I do because it's impossible to explain and the housewives I know have no clue about jobs. When a housewife asks me how work is, I am always tempted to say, "Fine. How's lunch and shopping?" If I tell them I'd rather talk about something else during my time off they say oh that's so sad that you don't like your job!! Then they start talking about how much their husbands love their jobs. ARGGGHHH,
    #24 - It's well-meant but after a person repeats over and over again that they'd rather talk about something else during their time off, at that point it's no longer well-meant. It's thoughtless.

    Posted by moi April 17, 09 09:54 AM
  1. #17 -- Not criticizing your comment here, just wondering:

    I'm curious what your former boss could've said/done that would have made you feel better when you ran into her. Would it have really been better if she had started acting sad and concerned for you? It seems to me that it just sucks to run into the person that laid you off, period. Unless she's begging you to come back to work for her (with a raise, more vacation time, etc.), what could she really have done or said to make you feel better? I guess I would rather not get any (possibly) fake concern and sympathy from the person who laid me off, but maybe that's just me. Seems like one of those situations where there's not really a single "good" thing for your ex-boss to do.

    Posted by DT April 17, 09 11:08 AM
  1. The thing I have noticed with being layed that when you attend other "outings" (i.e. networking events, clubs, family events)...despite your positive attitude and accomplishments......people treat the unemployed like they are "diseased". Once people find out you're unemployed, the conversation changes very quickly and you become intentionally ignored. The whole "stigma" of being unemployed gives others the perception that there is something wrong with you (i.e. laxy, a bum, moocher, pushing others for a job and desperate).

    Most companies have not learned the lesson of good risk assessment and how they should spend their money in a good economy. It's always the old "spend it now and we'll make it up later", "let the good times roll" approach. The mentality of "what will we have left to navigate through the next recession"...never appears on the radar screen. Then, when a recession hits, companies go through rounds of massive budget cuts and lay offs. Better risk assessment and more conservative spending in good times might help soften the blow of several poor earning reports and allow more workers to keep their jobs in a recession.

    What adds insult to injury is how Senior executies always manage to save their own butts in a recession, when they are the people who get paid to examine and implement the strategic direction of the company!

    Posted by bad economy April 17, 09 11:28 AM
  1. #33 - Many unemployed people I know describe themselves as "retired." Maybe involuntarily and temporarily,so, but still retired. Has far less stigma and feels better besides. Or they say, "retired, for the time being."

    Also, to those who say there's nothing wrong with asking what people do for a living - sure, but "how's work?" marks you as a really boring person. Work is always the same!! And, there's no response other than "fine." then what? It's a totally stupid way to have a conversation.

    Posted by moi April 17, 09 11:49 AM
  1. #33 - I couldn't agree more with your description of how "Most companies have not learned the lesson of good risk assessment and how they should spend their money in a good economy." I was recently laid off from a Public Relations agency after just 6 months of work. When they hired me, they wanted me to recruit my friends to come work there, and they were hiring left and right. Then when clients had to scale back, they laid off the majority of people they had just hired! It was TERRIBLE management and I was ashamed that I had even told friends it was a good place to work. Instead of a free-for-all of spending on things like free snacks for every meeting, their money could have been better spent trying to help people keep their jobs.

    Posted by ML April 17, 09 01:00 PM
  1. sound like a bitter, bored housewife!! Don't you have some laundry to fold, or Oprah to watch or something? You negated your entire little tirade by being so nasty. Maybe if you joined the rest of the world, you'd be able to have a laugh at posts like that instead of taking such extreme offense.

    Oh...and you missed a spot.

    Posted by SalimaT April 17, 09 02:05 PM
  1. Moi, #31,and Kate, #14, how very self-centered and important you must be. At which point does a person become worthy of common decency? Does it require a paycheck or the ability to feel sorry for oneself because they "have no choice?"

    Posted by GG April 17, 09 02:13 PM
  1. If you are among the ranks of those still employed or comfortably retired, show some sensitivity to the plight of your friends who have been laid off and are struggling to make ends meet. Recently, I was having coffee with two friends, one of whom is retired with a very cushy pension and the other who had just been laid off and was really worried about how long she could continue to pay her basic living expenses if she didn't find a new job soon. The laid off person told us about her situation ( not in a whiny way, just sharing her unfortunate news with friends) and we expressed our concern and sympathy for her. But then, my retired friend proceeded to change the subject so she could tell us in great detail about the fancy new car she had just ordered and her plans for a month-long European vacation this summer. Both I and my laid off friend are always happy for our friends when good things happen for them, but in this case I thought the retired friend's timing was awful.

    Posted by Mandy April 17, 09 02:44 PM
  1. I'm a three-time loser myself--3 times in 2 years, and I've learned a few things. Number one being that loyalty is DEAD and hard work means nothing--while it's nice that you've put in those extra hours and hard work, in the end, if it suits them, they will throw you out the door so fast it will make your head spin. And that's case whether you leave at 5 or at 7:30.
    It's easy to cut people, but not as easy (as in #33) to examine your processes and wonder the company came to this point.

    I'm gainfully employed for the moment and I love my job (my boss is terrific!), but there's one practical thing that I've kept in mind every single day of my working life since those really dark days. I keep nothing personal at my desk. My mugs are all super-cheap, so I wouldn't mind leaving them behind, along with the comic strips I've posted to the wall there. This works for me, so when I get laid off again, it's much less humiliating to grab your bag and go, rather than attempt to clean up personal effects from what you thought was your space.

    Posted by Jenner April 17, 09 02:44 PM
  1. This is for #14. Did you think maybe your friends are inviting you to their parties because they want to include you in a social setting? They are having a PARTY regardless of whether they are selling a product or not. These functions are usually just an excuse to get the girls together for a night out.

    With your attitude, I'm surprised you are still getting the invites...Yes you were laid off, yes that sucks, but, lighten up. Your friends didn't lay you off..

    Posted by sueedag April 17, 09 03:08 PM
  1. GG, #37 - This isn't a discussion about housewives. You all are in a very privileged position and rubbing it in or defending the position of housewife on a thread like this only shows an utter lack of understanding or empathy. But then, you all think people work because that's the "choice" they made!

    Posted by moi April 17, 09 03:57 PM
  1. I don't know why it is considered awkward when someone asks you what you are currently doing for work. My guess is that if you are looking for work, that is going to be one of the questions that comes up during your interviews. The simple answer is that "the last company I was at had some cutbacks and right now I am currently looking for a new position". As an HR Director who interviews A LOT that is a satisfactory answer to me. Of course the flip side of that is that I ask "I wonder why they chose that person over the next person" so I probe with questions to gain a sense of how knowledgeable the person is about the position they are applying towards. If a stranger is asking you then you probably want to ask them before you respond to them why they are asking you this question. If it is a friend it is probably that they are truly concerned about how your job search is going. I don't see what is wrong with an honest answer. As for running into your former boss/coworkers after a lay off, they are also being sincere when asking how you are doing. As someone who facilitate layoffs, it is always hard knowing that you are making decisions that affect people in a very negative way. A good HR person/manager will make sure that there is due diligence that is done before the layoff shows that the right decision is being made. I know it never looks like the managers/HR did anything to make it seems like a good decision - especially to the person that is being affected by the layoff - and I know a lot of companies don't do it the right way which never helps the situation. However, when you see someone from your former company and they ask you how you are doing, be honest with them even if it is to say "unfortunately it has been difficult obtaining a position right now, know anyone else who is hiring?" You never know what answer you will get.

    Posted by hrchick April 17, 09 04:02 PM
  1. #23 Absolutely hysterical!!! "How do you know the Hostess? Oh, she writes my Prozac scripts"!! Love it! I'm currently among the laid off but even when I was working I hated the old "what do you do" question. We give SO much of ourselves to work... it's nice to talk about something (anything!) else when not on the clock.

    Posted by booandbearsmommy April 17, 09 04:05 PM
  1. To #14 Kate:
    If you are tired of your friends inviting you to parties, then let them know that and of your financial situation. If they are truly your friends, they would be understanding and supportive. If not, I suggest you make yourself a new circle of friends... You are not doing anything to help yourself by bitching and moaning about your predicament.

    Posted by anotherman April 17, 09 04:14 PM
  1. Realize that being laid off is depressing and demoralizing for even the most capable of us. Please don't remind the person that others have also been laid off -- that they're in the same boat. The person knows that, and it doesn't make him or her feel any better. No matter what the economic situation, the one who has been laid off still feels alone. Also, don't ask if he or she is collecting unemployment... It's none of your business, and even if they are collecting, it can't possibly cover all basic living expenses. That 3-6 month "cushion" that's been saved, doesn't go very far.

    Posted by Been There. April 17, 09 05:06 PM
  1. Adding to "tired" #12 -- I have big boobs and they're not all that they're cracked up to be. Clothes don't fit right, bras are hard to find, they hurt when I work out, etc. But say anything about that to another woman and invariably they retort "well at least you have something up there!" Basically, everyone wants what they don't have, but it helps to realize that maybe what someone else has comes with problems too. Housewives do all the crappy & boring stuff at home that nobody sees or values, people who lost their jobs probably aren't happy for the "free time", and people with jobs aren't having all kinds of fun & making tons of money. Everyone wants to be respected and valued, so if you're unemployed, don't belittle or shut down people who complain about their jobs, and if you have a job, show some interest and respect towards people who aren't working whether or not it's by choice. It's very easy to feel boring and unimportant when you're not working, and people like "moi" (#31) just reinforce that. Just respect whatever anyone does or chooses, and maybe they'll respect you too. Oh, and let me complain about my boobs, please!

    Posted by "Been there done that..." April 17, 09 05:54 PM
  1. What's wrong with "What do you do?" They aren't asking "What do you do for work?" or "What company do you work for?" or "What do you do for a living?" To me, it's a very generic question akin to "How do you spend your time?" Many people spend time a lot of time at work and say only that. But, you can also say
    "I'm a [position] at [company]. I also like running marathons with my running group."
    "I worked at [company] as a [position] until March. I'm looking for something else now. That takes up a lot of my time, but I'm also reading books, spending time with my kids, playing in my community softball league."
    "I'm spending time at home with my kids. I also like to paint. "
    "I'm taking care of my father who's ill at the moment. We spend a lot of time doing crossword puzzles together."
    "I'm between jobs right now and am using the time to garden, which I've been meaning to get around to."

    I may just be weird, but I usually answer "What do you do?" with my job and what I do for fun. That's a much more interesting conversation starter and my job is not the only thing that I do.

    If I want to inquire about what someone does for work only, I ask specifically about that: "What do you do for work?"

    Posted by Nell April 18, 09 12:16 PM
  1. Not exactly a "lay off" etiquette, an about-to-graduate law student, I have three tips:

    1. To friends and family of law students, without experience in the law: do not, DO NOT tell law students without offers that "things will look up in a couple years" or "I'm sure you'll find something." Legal hiring is NOT like anything else. If you don't get a certain type of job before graduation, not only will you not be able to get one until next winter at the earliest - you'll NEVER not going to be able to get back on that track. Seriously. We're tired of explaining this. You may know how business hiring works, you may know how academic hiring works - you don't know how legal hiring works. It's different. And it's not going to change. Having to explain exactly why it's AS bad as it is...every time someone asks "So, do you know what you're doing after graduation?"...suicidal ideation is as common as highlighters.

    2. To law students with offers in hand: Stop talking about it in front of us. Stop talking about how your firm is paying for your barbri. Stop talking about how you're nervous that your judge has a reputation for screaming. Stop talking about how it's so much of a pain that you're clerking in the district court instead of appeals. Stop talking about your plans for a post-bar vacation. And please, try and understand if your friends without jobs start avoiding you. As I said, suicidal ideation is as common as highlighters. This counts double for deferred associates.

    Posted by HL April 18, 09 06:53 PM
  1. #46 - (Been there done that) - I am only trying to keep the discussion about people who are laid off. Never said all housewives were boring and unimportant (didn't say they weren't either - haha joke! calm down...) I did say I wouldn't mind being one. However, this discussion isn't about them. They don't work, they don't get laid off, and they don't have a clue about it so let those of us who do discuss it please. Sorry, it's just not about you guys.

    I also said that I hate it when people ask me constantly about work. Note the word constantly! Never said there was anything wrong with the question, but it's a bore when it's asked constantly, like everything else. Now, if I think work is boring, how does that translate into me saying people who don't work are boring? Not all of them are - no generalization is entirely true... but some come pretty close - haha don't lose it over a littel joke plese.

    Posted by moi April 18, 09 08:52 PM
  1. Oh, and #46 - I forgot to add that this isn't about your boobs either. I have no idea why you brought that up - nobody cares and nobody is jealous. I't not about housewives and it's not about your boobs.

    Posted by moi April 18, 09 08:58 PM
  1. Moi, you have the oddest conception of housewives. Do you really think that people who stay home to raise kids for a few years are completely clueless about the world of work?! What makes you think we're living in June Cleaver's world, where the line between women who work and women who don't is hard and fast?

    You keep saying that "this isn't about housewives," and you keep making it about housewives when you take gratuitous cracks at women who don't work. Let the bitterness go. We're all just trying to figure out the best way to support ourselves and our families. Snarking at each other about whose way is best just makes the world a meaner, colder place.

    Posted by MelissaJane April 19, 09 02:16 PM
  1. "Moi, you have the oddest conception of housewives. Do you really think that people who stay home to raise kids for a few years are completely clueless about the world of work?! "

    No, not those who stay home for a few years. Certainly not. To me a housewife is somebody for whom staying home is a way of life. They may have part-time jobs here and there but they don't know what full time is like for year after year.

    "What makes you think we're living in June Cleaver's world, where the line between women who work and women who don't is hard and fast?

    I never said that. My impression is that you don't have a clue about jobs if you've never had one. Nobody would, how could they? Your assumptions and reading things into what I say only adds to my impression. Why don't you use an example to show that you do understand (if indeed you are a housewife and not somebody who stayed home for a few years) rather than whine about my notion of a housewife?

    I am only defending myself anyway, It's really not about housewives and I'm just as guilty for defending myself. I should just ignore you guys like everybody else.

    Robin says: I really shouldn't have let this derail happen, but it's over now. No more housewife arguments.

    Posted by moi April 20, 09 11:08 AM
  1. I was laid off a month before my wife was due with our first son! Talk about stress! It was terrible! I did everything I could to find a new job, including attending job fairs and government programs, neither of which helped much. I applied to tons of jobs online, and I think that was the most useful. It also helps to have a website to put examples of your work for easy access. Fortunately, I obtained two job offers on the same day.

    By the way, I have a friend with cystic fibrosis, and she also hates the question, "What do you do?" Since she is unable to work full time or attend school full time, she stays at home and hates answering that question.

    Posted by Chris S. May 14, 09 09:28 PM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

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Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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