A very talented man in pursuit of a job wrote to me that he’s been discouraged—almost amazed—by the insensitivity some people have displayed when talking to him. They begin the conversation by asking him if he’s still looking for work.
“I believe most people mean well,” he writes, “However, I have recently been approached by friends and former associates who open with, ‘Still out of work?’ Not even a fake pleasantry like, ‘How are you?’ I try to rebuff their affront somewhat jokingly; yet, am depleting my repertoire of comebacks.”
His words, not mine.
As gainfully employed people we must consider how such a thoughtless question impacts the jobseeker. Question like, “Are you still out of work?” or, “Have you found a job, yet?” will only offend the unemployed, despite your good intentions. Why is approaching a jobseeker with caution important, and what should you say?
- His self-esteem has taken a huge hit. He feels shame and embarrassment, even though the condition of his lay-off was not his fault. Nonetheless, he is reluctant to talk about his unemployment with most people.
- He is worried about finances. His daughter is slated to have braces installed in the next month, or he is falling behind on the bills. There might be decisions to make as to which expenses are priorities.
- He is constantly playing back in his mind the reasons why he lost his job—poor performance, personality differences with his boss, salary too high. There is doubt and insecurity. Is he ready to take on another job?
- He is wondering if his recruiter is going to call back with some news; it’s already been three days. He feels he nailed the interviews. What’s taking so long? He constantly checks his phone.
- There hasn’t been an interview in the last 30 days, despite his networking efforts and the many online applications he has sent out. So he wonders if there is any hope left in finding a job.
- Relations with his wife have been strained due to his dour mood and constant snapping at the kids. Unemployment can test even the best of marriages. The possibility of marriage counseling is great.
- He feels depressed and doesn’t want to be reminded of the reason for his depression. Many things can spark off feelings of despondency; something as simple as being out of the environment he’s been in for the past 20 years.
- He is experiencing physical problems which he can’t explain, such as headaches, stomach and chest pains, shooting pain across his back; most likely due to stress.
- He avoids people, preferring to be alone. Taking the kids to playgroup is torture and he doesn’t associate with the mostly women at the group. He is alienating himself from family and friends.
- If he hasn’t look for work for many years, the job search is alien to him. He may be paralyzed by the process of finding a job in a competitive labor market. (Read this post on how the job search has changed for older workers.)
How to approach someone who is unemployed
Opening questions or statements should be as temperate as possible. Start with a simple, “Hi” and sense if the jobseeker wants to engage in conversation. Don’t take it personally if he doesn’t respond to your greeting with enthusiasm. Lead with some close-ended questions or neutral comments to gauge his willingness to converse.
I asked my customer how one should talk to someone out of work. He suggests handling a scenario the following way:
Imagine you see your neighbor, Mike, in the grocery store. Instead of ducking into the next aisle, you do the right thing and acknowledge and greet him. You notice that he’s comparing prices of cereal. “Boy, the prices have shot through the roof,” you joke.
“I’ll say.” He seems contemplative.
“I’m a Frosted Mini-Wheats fan, but my kids like Cinnamon Toasted Crunch. How are you?”
“Could be better.” He’s definitely referring to his unemployment.
“I think it will get better, Mike….Soon. You’re a talented trainer….” Notice you use present tense.
In this example you do a good job of starting a dialog. You open the dialog with a light comment about cereal prices. You simply ask how he is doing, and he, not you, chooses to allude to his unemployment. As well, you give him a boost of confidence by telling him he’s talented at what he does.
But you’d like to help him at the moment. If you can’t, simply tell him that you’ll keep your ear to the pavement for any possibilities. However, if something comes to mind, mention it. “Mike, I don’t know if you’ve contacted Jason Martin at Jarvis Corporation, but they’re looking for a safety coordinator. They might be looking for a trainer. In any case, there’s movement at the company.”
Don’t be reluctant to shake Mike’s hand. Most people appreciate a kind gesture, the warmth of a human touch. Hold on to his hand a bit longer than you normally would; this demonstrates your concern for Mike and speaks louder than words. Your eyes can also do the talking for you. They can say, “I’m concerned, buddy, and rooting for you. This is what people who are unemployed need; a cheerleader, not insensitive questions about their unemployment.
Photo: Flickr, Robert Montgomery
Laura, great comments. Perhaps I need to write one on how to answer the question what are you doing?
Ouch, Jeannette. That is plain mean. I have to admit that I once asked a customer of mine if he had found a job yet, but only because I had faith in him. I regretted saying it and have not said something like that again. We have to consider the frailty of one’s psyche.
I agree with you when you said to use present tense verbs. I tell my Job Acquisition Specialists that they still are what they were at their last jobs. Just because they are not doing that job anymore they still have the knowledge and experience they had then. It did not disappear due their recent change.