How to help someone who's been laid off

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesLast week, I had yet another coffee date with an acquaintance who was recently laid off. Before we met, I thought a lot about how I could be helpful to him without offering tired cliches like "It will all work out for the best." Less than a year ago, I lost what I had thought was a dream gig -- writing a regular column and blog for The New York Times. As I prepped for my meeting, I tried to remember how I was feeling during that time and which people made me feel good and which made me want to clock them. Here's what I came up with.

When you reach out to someone who's recently been laid off, keep in mind that layoffs hit people differently. The good news is that there's little shame in being out of work today. Still, for almost anyone who has been laid off, it is a sensitive time; emotions can be unpredictable. So try to be gentle. Especially if you're a member of the family. What might be considered a polite observation by a friend could easily be interpreted as offensive meddling by a mother, sister, or in-law. And now, a few specific tips:

Don't assume you know what someone wants. Ask what would be helpful and then respond based on what the person says.

Don't assume the person has a plan of action. In the immediate aftermath of a layoff, many people have no idea what they are going to do next. Repeatedly fielding the question, "What are you going to do next?" will not be welcomed by someone who is worrying about how to shuffle around bills long enough to keep creditors at bay.

Don't ask for frequent updates.
Finding a new job or reinventing a career takes a long time and often involves tiny steps like setting up an online profile, making a couple of networking calls, or going to a conference. If you condition yourself not to expect frequent status reports, you won't look like a nag.

Avoid statements that start with, "You should." All industries and situations are different, and even if you think it's obvious that your friend needs to get on LinkedIn, contact a mutual friend of yours, or update her wardrobe, it's not your position to say any of those things unless you are asked your opinion.

Be sensitive about money. If your friend's most pressing concern is how to pay the mortgage or pay the rent, don't suggest that she explore her passions. As for whether to offer to pick up the tab, that is a sticky one. Some people -- like the friend I had coffee with last week -- appreciate an offer from you to take the check and for them to return the favor once they are working again. Others will bristle at the suggestion. (Splitting the check is often a good solution.) If you don't know how a person will react, you can skirt the whole situation by getting together in a way that doesn't involve an expense, like inviting the friend to your home for a coffee or meeting for a walk. Avoid inviting unemployed friends to expensive activities unless they have indicated that they are comfortable spending like they always have.

If someone is open to help, here are some things you can do. If you have any special expertise, offer to share it. If, after hearing what your friend is exploring, you realize that you have contacts you can share, offer to make introductions (do this only if you feel you can genuinely recommend the person. (Scroll down to number 3.) Offer to review your friend's resume and/or cover letter. Help your friend hone his or her story or pitch. You can do this by identifying the strengths you hear when your friend talks about her situation, and replaying back them back: "You sound like you are excellent at ......"

Follow up. After the meeting you will probably have a few things that you promised to do for your unemployed friend. Do them quickly. It will mean a lot to the person you're helping.

Post Script: It turns out that Christopher Moore, the laid-off journalist I mentioned above, also blogged about our meeting, adding his perspective on what to say and not to say to someone who has just been laid off. If you read the post, take his last line with a grain of salt. The lighting must have been especially flattering at that cafe.

Do you have any tips for the best -- and the worst -- things you can say or do for someone who has recently been laid off?