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My Colleague was Just Downsized. How Can I Help? Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Question: How do you assist a colleague when they've been downsized and it's like they've disappeared off the face of the earth? A few days ago someone I've worked with for more than three years was let go suddenly. Without warning, they escorted her from the building like she was some sort of criminal. This is crazy because she has always been a solid performer and a trustworthy peer. Anyway, the thing is that even though she and I spent hours together everyday at work, had lunch together at least once a week and often confided in each other, I never went beyond being social with her at work and I don't even know what her home phone number or e-mail address is. I want to contact her and see if I can be of any help. Should I look up her home number and call to let her know I'm here for her? Would my employer be mad if I did? Should I offer to give her a reference if she has trouble getting one?

Derrick Y., Antigonish, Nova Scotia
Dear Derrick,

It is very commendable of you to offer your assistance to a colleague in need. This sort of generosity can make an enormous difference to someone who has just lost their job.

I can speak here from personal experience. The first time I was let go when working as an employee, it was terribly humiliating. There was no notice period: I was literally marched out of the building in front of my co-workers. There was barely any time to collect my personal belongings, and the whole time I was ''watched over'' by someone from the Human Resources department. Nice touch, eh?

Once I was home, it felt like I'd been hit with a stun-gun. The job I'd relied on for my monthly income was gone. I had to break the news to my very pregnant wife. There was legal paperwork that needed to be looked over (my severance package and sign-off), so I had to find - and pay for - an employment lawyer to review the material, all within a tight deadline dictated by the company. Then, I had to arrange a meeting with my now ''ex'' boss to negotiate a letter of recommendation. Keep in mind this was the same boss who had terminated me, so you can imagine what a joyful meeting that turned out to be.

Looking back on this period, one of the worst parts of being unemployed was my instant isolation. To be suddenly cut off from your co-workers, to be no longer part of the active workforce, was like being voted off the island and left to wither like an untended garden. Not a single person that I'd worked with phoned to find out what had happened, or to wish me well. Was I now some sort of contagious disease? Later on I learned that a few people did intend to get in touch with me, but felt that they would be acting like disloyal employees if they did. Disloyal? To a company that would terminate someone just like that?

So Derrick, perhaps you ought to reach out to your colleague who was downsized. It could help her simply to know that losing her job doesn't mean she's been rejected by society at large. My advice would be, however, to not use your employer's phone or e-mail to contact her. First of all, because it's really none of their business. And secondly because the employer is now involved in a legal situation with your former colleague, given that the Severance Package they've probably given her has yet to be dealt with. Since you still work for the employer you do have a duty to protect their interests. Finally there are some employers who would frown on it knowing that you're in touch with someone they've recently terminated. They could potentially question whether you side with the person who was let go, or with your employer.

As for offering to serve as a reference for your colleague, this is indeed a noble gesture; one that may become vitally important in the weeks and months of job hunting that lie ahead for your peer. You may want to wait and see if she can negotiate a positive reference from the employer directly (she can try to do this as part of her Severance agreement.) Be aware that assisting her in this way - if your employer chooses not to - should probably be done in an ''unofficial'' capacity: that is, do not do so on company time and do not use their property (such as their letterhead, company e-mail, etc.) This way you minimize the risk of your employer knowing what you're doing. Not that it would necessarily get you into trouble. But if you're concerned that it might, then why not keep it under the radar.

My best wishes to you and your colleague. A friendly deed for a friend in need is a wonderful and timely gift.

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