What’s the right thing to do when a co-worker gets laid off?

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / July 16, 2009
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Your friend got laid off. You’ve said you’re sorry. Now what do you do?

Wish them luck. Carry out their boxes. Help them find a job, says Mary Ann Gontin, managing partner of OI Partners - Cunis & Gontin in Danbury, Conn., which specializes in career transition.

But no matter what, resist the urge to do what one of her well-intentioned clients did recently: Take up an office collection to help the friend out. You may inadvertently embarrass your friends, and even yourself. And it may not be appreciated by your boss.

“It’s probably a mistake,’’ says etiquette maven Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. “A nice idea, but fraught with problems.’’

The age-old charitable practice of passing the hat in the workplace - once reserved for hard-luck cases like colleagues who get sick or lose their home in a fire - has inched its way into the downsizing world, as layoffs escalate and employees watch helplessly when the ax falls on their friends.

To the hat-passers and those who donate, giving money may feel like a thoughtful and practical way to help people in a bind, especially if those terminated didn’t get much notice, or any severance package.

But the potential to backfire is huge. “This is a slippery slope,’’ warns Post. “You can get in trouble.’’

Consider the story of Gontin’s client, a casebook study of good intentions run amuck. The client is a senior engineer in a high tech firm which laid off several employees earlier this year, including one man with financial problems and family health issues.

Though he wasn’t a close friend, the engineer decided to take up a collection for the colleague, and put together a list of 10 office mates he was sure would pony up. He found it odd when the first three or four said, “we’ll get back to you,’’ Gontin said, so he hit up the rest, en masse, over lunch.

They all said no. “It turned out they hated the guy,’’ Gontin said. “He was rude. He harassed women.’’ What was worse, the engineer was now tainted by association.

“Some were surprised [the engineer] was friends with him,’’ said Gontin. “He had to dig himself out. He was embarrassed. He hated the thought that all these years people might be looking at him, like, ‘You liked this guy?’ ’’

“You need to really tread very carefully here,’’ concurs Elizabeth Freedman , a Boston corporate etiquette specialist and author of “Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace Without Hanging Yourself.’’ “While the gesture or desire to help folks comes from a very well-meaning place, in practical terms it really opens up a minefield. You may know someone in a tight spot, but I’d hesitate before opening up the wallet.’’

One unintended consequence of passing the hat is the risk of humiliating the colleague you’re trying to help, workplace experts say. “I know you want to do good in the world but you want to be really sure there is no chance this will be embarrassing to the person,’’ Post said.

“It implies the person is extremely needy and not everyone wants to admit that to their friends,’’ said Steve Ford, a Boston-based director of OI Partners. “They might say, ‘Jeez, people think I’m desperate.’ ’’

Just ask Kris Shaffer, a Newton interior designer. She didn’t even lose her job - she quit - but more than 20 years later she still cringes when she thinks about the $1,000 check her friends gave her at her going away party, after she left her waitress job to move to New Mexico.

“I was incredulous,’’ she said. “I was stunned. It was a mixture of everything - I was incredibly grateful and honored they’d do such a generous thing, but also kind of mortified.’’

There are other pitfalls of office collections, including the proverbial slippery slope. “In this day and age, you can have a whole bunch of people being laid off,’’ Post pointed out. “Are you going to take up a collection for one and not another? The problem of taking up a collection is it goes beyond the moment of that one [situation of] giving. How do you decide who gets it and who doesn’t? What if 20 percent of the staff is laid off?’’

After a while, the contributions start to add up. “It becomes an extra tax,’’ said Ford, who has worked in the career transition business for nearly 40 years. “In rare exceptions it may be the appropriate thing to do . . . but it loses its meaning if it happens all the time. After a while everyone who gets laid off expects the extra $1,000 bonus or whatever it is from other employees.

“And it gets tough for those who stay behind,’’ he cautioned, “particularly if they are concerned about being laid off themselves.’’

He contends there are better ways to help than shaking down folks in the office. Be emotionally supportive. Stay in contact. Help them network. “If you want to help, think about what you can do in a private way,’’ said Freedman.

She adds: “The reality is that there are a variety of social services in place to help people laid off. Your tax dollars are helping people right now.’’

Sounds crass? It’s a tough world out there these days. And in case you need to be reminded, some experts say that one good reason not to pass the hat in the office is that your employer may frown on it - and you still have to work there.

“They perceive it as a criticism that they hadn’t taken care of people well enough,’’ Steve Ford said. “They want to move on with this process as quickly as possible. Once it’s over, they’re heaving a sigh of relief, so they would get a little churned up by some people being what they perceive as inordinately connected to those laid off. It limits the sense of ‘let’s all gather round and go forward.’ ’’

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