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Dr. Irene S. Levine Headshot

Girlfriends with Pink Slips

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Until recently, I never knew anyone up close and personal who had been fired. Now the bodies are falling fast -- talented professional women, friends who just happen to be in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. While disturbing, it's not surprising.

The Washington Post reported that 2.1 million workers were fired last year in massive layoffs (affecting 50 or more workers), the second-highest figure since the Labor Department began collecting this data. Small businesses haven't been exempt either, many folding or downsizing. Speaking before a Senate Appropriations Committee, Chairman Daniel Inouye noted that over 1 million jobs were lost over the last two months alone. Dubbed 'Black Monday' by Slate Magazine, 55,000 jobs were lost in a single day earlier this week.

The picture is grim. If you don't already have a friend who received a pink slip, it might not be long before you do. The support of female friends can help a woman get over the traumatic emotional and financial losses associated with being fired or let go. What can friends do?

1) Be there for her
Listen to what happened. Let her tell her story. Don't pry unnecessarily. Follow her lead in determining how much she wants to tell you. Don't recite all the grim unemployment statistics she's already been bombarded with by the media. Tell her that you're sorry and will do what you can to help.

2) Follow her lead
Losing a job is a little like losing a loved one. People go through stages from anger to acceptance. Don't try to talk her out of her feelings. Don't tell her you know how she feels because you really can't put yourself in her shoes.

3) Reach out
If she hasn't told you about her job loss directly -- perhaps you saw it on her profile on Facebook or LinkedIn, or you learned about it from a mutual friend -- give her a call or send her an email acknowledging the loss. True friends don't pretend not to know about bad things. It may be hard for her to repeat the same story to everyone she knows.

4) Offer concrete help
A research study called Friends in Low Places highlights gender differences in response to unemployment. Because women are more likely to nurture social connections outside the workplace (e.g. in their community), they may be more detached from the world of work---making the need for access to job information and support all the more important. Do you have networking ideas to share? Job leads? Can you help her brainstorm? Reinvent her career? Offer to edit or proofread her resume? Can you research whether there's a job support group or pink slip party locally that she could attend?

5) Don't be cloyingly annoying
Stay in touch. Email or call regularly but don't come on too strong or too often. There's nothing more annoying than being constantly asked if you've found a job yet. Wait for her to tell you.

6) Distract her
Remind her that there are other parts of life beyond work. Offer to take her to dinner or a movie. Invite her to a 'Girl's Night In' with a small group of close friends.

7) Offer her a bridge loan
Many people say that friends and money don't mix, but if you can afford it and she really needs it -- and she's a close friend -- offer a modest loan to help tide her over this rough period.

8) Don't wallow in guilt
If you worked with her, you may experience a profound sense of guilt that she was axed and you were left behind -- survivor's guilt. Recognize that you aren't responsible for her termination. While you can be helpful and supportive, you need to draw limits.

9) Watch for signs of (emotional) depression
With a sinking economy, it's tough to find a new job. Like beautiful houses that remain on the market, capable people remain unemployed for months and years. Recognize that extended unemployment takes an emotional toll. If your friend seems very distressed, tell someone close to her (perhaps a relative) and/or suggest that she seek professional help.

Yes, it's uncomfortable and awkward to console someone who has just lost her job but everyone needs a little nurturance from their friends, especially at times like this. Think about what you would want if you were in the same situation. Sadly, in this economic climate you may find yourself there sooner than you think.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving the Myth, that will be published by Overlook Press in September, 2009 and recently co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.

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