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Friday, February 06, 2009

Helping Your Unemployed Friend

Remember when you were unemployed? I was once. That never happened to you? Then, you’re one of the few and the fortunate. I’m glad you haven’t gone through the debilitating experience … yet. However, given the current economic turbulence, you might.

To weather the possible storm, you can learn a lot from -- and give a lot to -- a friend or former colleague who is unemployed. This is an opportune time to do unto others as you might someday want others to do unto you.

Based on the experience of watching myself and others suffer the ordeal, here are three suggestions about what not to say to someone who has lost his or her job and five guidelines on how to truly help.

3 Suggestions

1 Don’t be a constant reminder
Joblessness, I found, totally defines you. Joblessness is a full-time job and constant obsession. Endless hours are spent on the tedious mechanics of unemployment:
  • revising your resume
  • following up on leads
  • reporting to the unemployment office; and
  • calculating what expenses to cut.
Then there are the emotional obligations: reassuring a spouse, answering the kids’ questions, and staying confident and optimistic.

Even when going to a movie as a break from the pressure, you run into friends who greet you with, “How’s the job search going?” The comment sounds innocent enough and reflects a degree of empathy. Unfortunately, the question forces a self-respecting, half-truth, stock answer: “Really good. I’ve got some things going, a possible interview or two.” Even if you want to talk more about your search, you know people really are not interested enough to spend time with the details and the struggles.

Alternative: Start conversations with your unemployed friend as if she is employed like you are. If and when she brings up the unemployment issue, only then ask questions and show your support. But let her initiate it.

2 Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
Friends want to help unemployed friends by sharing contacts. Again, it’s a kind gesture, and expanding one’s network is always good, of course. However, giving out contact information takes little time; following up with those contacts can be very time-consuming and unproductive for the job seeker. The contact person inevitably promises to think about opportunities. However, that person is not apt to remember the promise after a few weeks, and rarely does an opportunity arise.

Alternative: Carefully select only relevant contacts, write -- or better yet call -- and ask them to give your friend 30 minutes face-to-face. In most cases, the answer will be yes. As a result of the meeting, your unemployed friend now has someone who will remember her.

3 Don’t pretend to have the answers
A once unemployed person typically offers no quick-fix answers when talking with a currently unemployed person. That’s because he knows the search is more about hard work, emotional perseverance, and luck. You may not fully understand this as a never-been-unemployed person, so be careful not to offer up the five tips that you just read in a magazine.

Alternative: Think about what would likely get your attention if you were hiring someone. Share that perspective anecdotally at the appropriate time with your unemployed friend.

5 Ways to support your unemployed friend
  1. Be there. If you care about your friend’s situation – I mean really care, like you say you do – assume that you will spend two hours per week minimum with him or her, not talking necessarily about the job search but just having fun, jabbering about nothing, but most important being available. When someone doesn’t have a job to go to and no one to talk with all day, noise, laughter, and companionship are premiums.

  2. Listen closely. Your unemployed friend may be withdrawn during this rough time or chattier. Move with his emotional flow. Sit quietly when he is quiet; talk it up when he does. By doing that, you are reflecting what he cannot see without you: loneliness, confusion, and hope because you simply are hanging in there with him.

  3. Help with the truth. Your friend will initially communicate that a new job is only a matter of weeks. The denial stage of the death process has set in. Let her ramble. But at a comfortable point, ask what’s frustrating her most about the search. Let her show her fear. Listen, reassure, and allow her to find her own way back to reality, possibly with some gentle guidance by you.

  4. Be patient. Finding a job will actually take months. Make sure you are prepared to stick with your friend for the long haul. The worst time for the unemployed is three months after losing a job, when people from the office or factory don’t readily return calls, and life for everyone besides the unemployed goes on normally.

  5. Make a sacrifice. There are lots of ways to do something tangible to help, such as taking care of your friend's children so she can get a break or loaning her your extra car for awhile. Offering something tangible sounds patronizing -- and it can be. However, I remember fondly when I was unemployed and my good friend said kindly and reassuringly that he would float me a few thousand dollars at any time if I got stuck. Then, he said nothing else. He didn’t have to. If you can’t say it comfortably, maybe you shouldn’t, but don’t avoid it either.
Richard Skaare 02.06.09
Photo credit: Mahi Teshneh


Emma Hamer said...

Great post, Jason!

If I might add something:

One of the grander gestures you might consider - perhaps as a group of friends banding together - is to pony up (some or all of) the funds for your friend to get some real focused help from a private career coach. Especially when one's career path to date has not been 'standard' and when there seems to be a greater supply of possible candidates than jobs, getting professional help for your friend to help her 'stand out from the crowd' and present herself more effectively to potential employers can make a world of difference; often shaving months off the time it would take to find a new position on her own. It's an investment in her success, and it will continue to provide value long after she has found another job.

Geraldine said...

As someone who is currently jobhunting, I agree with all of these!

Also, sometimes it is nice not to hear "Oh don't worry you'll get something and you'll be laughing about all this in a few months" (of course friends are just being kind and want to reassure you), but sometimes all you want to hear is "Wow, that sucks for you big time! I can imagine you must feel down, but remind yourself that you are putting in the work, so you will get the reward. And here's an interest free loan" :)

Great post, Richard.

Kristie Aylett, APR said...

Thanks for posting. This is great advice. One of my best friends has been unable to find a permanent position for several months now. We're hundreds of miles apart so have to make due with virtual hugs. I think the best thing I've been able to provide is someone who knows how talented and smart she is and with whom she can express her growing sense of frustration. My fingers are crossed for every job-seeker.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. I agree with Emma. In addition, consider having a good career coach provide your unemployed friend with 3 reports they can submit with their resume and cover letter: a DISC, a PIAV, and a job skills and talent inventory. These reports can be complied on a one-page snapshot that will show immediately if the candidate is a good match for an open position. Your candidate is providing value by making all that culling-through much easier, and your info will stand out from the crowd.

HFU Online said...

great blog...

Hope to see you at the Snohomish Farmers Market...


Absolutely Nuts said...

Good sagely advice surely...

Am currently going through this - for one who has never attended any interview in a 15-year career. As a corporate communications professional in Hyderabad, India and in this market where cost optimisation is a buzz word, it's really difficult.
Have gone though some but they don't get closed. Those in senior position suddely start drawing a blank when you reach them - it hurts but one has to wait. Patience starts to wane out and health will take beating as one starts getting worried as to how long this will last. Especially with markets not showing upward trend, it's going to be long uphill task - hope someone appreciates and am back in business.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post for its authentic look at the frustrations of the unemployed. Good work.

I have to add that Emma´s comment suggests that she is a career coach - a bit of gentle plugging? Not too bad, but Julia's gone too far. This post isn't about how to beef up your resume, it's about the support that you can offer your friend in a frustrating and frightening time. Tsk.

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard-
I found your blog a few weeks ago via the Content Wrangler group and have enjoyed it ever since. This post is incredibly helpful during these uniquely tough times. About half of my friends are now unemployed (all media and finance in NYC), my brother is unemployed, and I am "under"employed (consultant). In an age when 1000 talented people are competing for the exact same position- one that might be below their skill level- no amount of "pointing in the right direction" will help.

My advice to someone trying to console the unemployed? Spend an hour or two doing something active with them- hiking, bowling, jogging, etc. ANYTHING to get them away from the computer screen, out of their heads, and out of the house for a bit.

Emma Hamer said...

What, Ivan? The HFU: Snohomish Farmer's Market gets a pass with their 'helpful' comment?

C'mon - I think Julia's comment is perfectly consistent with the general helpfulness that this post encourages; and yes, I am also a career coach. One of the hardest topics for friends to broach is: "But why did they lay YOU off", as in - "Out of the 10 people doing the same kind of work at this company, how come YOU were the one chosen to leave...? (and not the guy in the cube next to you)

The fact of the matter is that there's a lot you can do to avoid ending up on the list of names of "employees we think we can do without". A better understanding of your work and communication style, personality preference and team roles can help in that process.

Helping your friend face reality, and perhaps get her to acknowledge that she may not have done such a good job of her own internal PR, or that she stubbornly refused to "play office politics" to build alliances and support, so she might be able to keep her job, is another valuable contribution friends can make. Not to "blame the victim", but unless the entire company shut down and everyone lost their jobs, helping your friend take some responsibility for her situation, so she may learn from the experience, is a brave gift indeed.

Mar-GO said...

I like the brave gift of awareness part of the last post. But unless you are a trained career coach (which I am NOT), you're on thin ice.
Having just been downsized in a university communication department where they may or may not replace me I do wonder, was it me? Of course it was me. Can we change some things, yes. But can we change substantially, enough to fit it, do overloads without compensation, cover for inadequate planning over and over? Such is the dilemma of the PR Pollyana, wanting to be loved in a loveless environment is not a good strategy. Sticking up for yourself and being yourself is better for the self-esteem. In the long-run, you at least can say, "Well, I ducked when they tried to slug me."

Adaleow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Emma Hamer--Wake up and smell the coffee!!

Insight is useful, of course, and actively managing your career is great but there are lots of exceptions to the rule. My industry sector--architecture, construction, engineering and real estate development is down 70% from a year ago at this time. I worked as the Marketing Communications and Public Relations Director for an engineering operating company that is part of a multi-national organization. I have over 25 years' experience and I am familiar with the cyclical nature of the field (alas). However, I was not familiar with the 65+ hours per week for 30 months with no overtime compensation. I was unable to protect my staff members--two editors had heart attacks and one of them passed away shortly after completing 5 technical proposals in four days. And, puhleeze, folks, I've worked with a career coach for three months, but in this environment hiring managers are not willing to interview candidates outside of their own industries UNLESS there is a personal connection. And if you've been a senior person, there is great resistance to placing you in a more junior (lesser paid) position for fear "you will leave when the economy picks up." And even after offering to sign a 24-month contract. This is not a great time to blame the unemployed for their problems. It's a time to offer help and realize that "there but for the grace of God, go I" etc.

Emma Hamer said...

Anonymous: it's such a shame that you feel unable to come out of hiding; if the career coach you've been working with knows her craft, she would have been guiding you on the path to becoming one of the people with whom hiring managers "have a personal connection". It's called "networking" - or more appropriately "career marketing".

I was not "blaming the unemployed", but a common characteristic of many "recently laid-off" folks is that they absolutely sucked at their own PR. A good career coach will also point that out to you, and help you develop ways and means of doing better in the next job.

The key to getting your next job is connecting with hiring managers, inside and outside of your industry, BEFORE there is a vacancy. Once there's a vacancy, all systems are firing on risk avoidance, and 'outsiders' don't stand much of chance. But if you take the time to develop relationships with people whose headaches and needs you come to know, when there is a specific need for someone with your skill-set and experience, you WILL get the call.

Good luck to you; I hope things work out soon.

Unknown said...

I think this is one of the best posts I have seen about unemployment. It truly shows empathy and concern for others. You are clearly coming from a good place. God bless...Peter Burger

The Communication Heretic said...

In addition to the main post, I most liked the comment from Aimee Barnes to "Spend an hour or two doing something active with them- hiking, bowling, jogging, etc. ANYTHING to get them away from the computer screen, out of their heads, and out of the house for a bit." This is perfect! I have been out of work since mid-May and have learned that getting out and doing something with a friend is the best possible medicine.

As to the controversy over the role of a career coach, I see both perspectives ~ I too wonder intensely about the nagging "why me?" question and would dearly love to have an answer. But the coach and client would need to have a powerful bond of trust in order for this to work.

Meanwhile, like the other seasoned professionals commenting on this post, there is no doubt that this is a particularly challenging time for us. I offer more than 25 years with an emphasis on broad strategic communications; my strongest belief is in the need for organizations to communicate with genuine authenticity with both internal and external stakeholders. In this environment, it is the road to survival.

Thanks for a great post and an interesting conversation. My best wishes to my fellow unemployed!