How to React when a Coworker Is Fired

The firing of a co-worker can be an uncomfortable, sometimes unnerving situation at your job. It can be especially challenging if you have established a positive relationship with the terminated employee, or if the event touches off fear and panic in your colleagues. In the event that a co-worker is fired, know what to say, what not to say, and how best to protect yourself from the fallout.

1. Knowing what to say

Offer real support. Many people will feel the urge to ignore the situation or offer platitudes. Resist this. The last thing your colleague wants to hear is that their firing must have a silver lining or is somehow “for the best.” At the same time, though, don’t ignore the situation. They will appreciate positive words of sympathy or, even better, offers of concrete assistance.

Rather than telling your co-worker, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a great job soon,” try a something simple and empathetic. “I’m sorry” or “Let me know how I can help” is much better.

Make a real offer to help. Can you help their revamp their resume? Maybe he’d/she’d like you to give him/her a mock interview? Or would they just like to get together for coffee? This can make more of a difference than words.

2. Don’t make light of the situation. 

While offering affirming words, avoid at all cost jokes, dark humor, or a response that minimizes the situation. Your co-worker has just been fired. They are probably distraught and possibly angry or in shock. One of the most unfeeling things you can do in this situation is to make light of it, because this could make it seem like their emotions don’t matter. Saying, “You’re lucky to get out of this dump,” for example, or joking about how much free time he’ll/she’ll have is tactless.

Respect the space, as well. Try to read the body language from them – you may see that they are having a hard emotional time. In that case, don’t pain him/her with a long conversation or press him/her to go out to lunch or other things.

3 Don’t offer advice. 

Another natural response to seeing a colleague fired is to want to “fix things.” Resist this urge, too. In a way, getting fired is like experiencing a death in the family. Your co-worker will too busy coming to terms with the loss to appreciate your opinion about how she/he should start up her/his own business or change fields. They will also not want your would-be advice about getting a better job.

Rather than saying, “You know, there’s lots of jobs in health care – maybe you can get one there,” keep it concrete and helpful. Try something like, “Let me know if I can do anything. I’d be happy to look over your resume or read your cover letters.”

4 Keep the conversation focused on them. 

Being empathetic requires you to give priority to another person’s feelings, and to listen to them. You are trying to offer emotional support to a co-worker and perhaps friend. Don’t make the conversation about you. Don’t recount a story about a time when you were fired and how you managed. Remain focused on him/her.

Ask your co-worker about her – “How are you doing? Are you alright?” Avoid sentences that start with I or my. For example, “Once when I got fired…” or “Once I used to work at Company Y…”

5 Follow up when the time is right. 

Give your co-worker some time and space to come to terms with their firing before contacting hin/her again. Try sending a short email – “Hi Jane. I’m really sorry that you left XYZ, Ltd. How are you doing? Please let me know if there is anything that I can do to help you.” Make sure to be understanding and not prying. Don’t go into the reasons for their firing unless they bring it up. 

6 Avoid discussing the situation with your boss. 

Unless she/he specifically brings it up, do not discuss your co-worker’s firing with your boss until the dust has settled. This is probably a stressful time for him/her as well, and he/she will likely be busy planning the transition period before someone else is hired to take over the position. It may be hard, but hold your tongue.

Protecting Yourself

1 Avoid gossip. 

Sometimes you can foresee a firing – a co-worker has a history of poor performance, bad relations with co-workers, or has had a falling out with the boss. At other times, it can be completely unexpected. In either case, resist the gossip that will likely be swirling. Stay quiet and focus on your work if you hear that a co-worker has been fired. Don’t speculate at the water-cooler and don’t try to pry from anyone, your former co-worker, your office mates, or you boss. Moreover, don’t believe rumors that you may overhear.

2 Let the dust settle. 

Don’t horn in on your former co-worker’s responsibilities too soon. Even if she/he had easier tasks, a nicer office, or better parking spot, don’t be tempted to ask for these soon after her/his termination. Let things settle down. Your boss will likely have a plan for you and the co-worker’s replacement, and could see your haste as in very poor taste. 

3 Perform better and more reliably. 

Be careful, particularly if you sense that your co-worker’s firing may be the start of a round of layoffs. Evaluate your work. Are you meeting expectations? Are you a valuable employee or an expendable one? Even if the termination was isolated, focus on the work in front of you. A firing can cause chaos and place added work on everyone who remains. Try to be even more attentive to your tasks and to the quality of your work. Your boss will appreciate your performance. It may even pay off in a promotion in the long run.