When you experience a career crisis, your best friends can let you down the most.
With more than 20 years of experience as a career counselor for professionals in transition, I have witnessed the same phenomenon over and over again. No one wants to believe me when I say it, but I always warn my clients to expect the people closest to them to eventually stop returning their calls, inviting them out for drinks or dropping by.
Human nature has us hard-wired to fight or flee when we sense danger, and most people, when it comes to job loss, take the cowardly route and flee. For those “friends” who disappear when the going gets rough, shame on them. But if you want your friends to stick around and fight for you, understand that you’ll have to develop some impressive skills to stay upbeat and positive for the duration of your job search.
More Often Than Not...
There is actually some science to back up my theory. A study from Pew Research finds that more than four in ten of the long-term unemployed lose contact with close friends. Anecdotally, I have had clients tell me that former colleagues preferred to cross the street rather than engage them in normal, sidewalk conversation, as if the unemployed had contracted a communicable disease. Then there are the heartbreaking pleas from the wives of unemployed men, who ask their girlfriends to “have your husbands check in on Joe” because he is so lonely.
It seems unconscionable for friends to dump you as soon as your self-esteem hits a low. People who lose their jobs are not bad people. And I don’t think there is any connection between losing your job and having rotten friends. When you think about other tough times in your life (like an illness or death, fire or flood), chances are there were hands to hold or shoulders to cry on. Magically, food arrived on your table and shelter was provided selflessly.
Why does everything seem to change when the loss is job-related?
Why Does This Happen?
When it comes to friends walking away, I put the blame squarely on the friends and their fears, not on the unemployed. This is why:
1. Job loss hits way too close to home, especially in this economy. If you—equally smart/hardworking/experienced—can find yourself out of work, your friends feel like they could very well be next in line. So instead of rallying behind you, they run for the hills hoping that by blocking it out, they won’t be next.
2. Even good friends are scared of becoming your rock. Having to prop someone up can feel way too heavy emotionally, financially or both. When friends lend a hand during other times of disaster, there is at least the assumption of a limited time frame. But unemployment can last a long time and the uncertainty can scare people away from offering even a little bit of assistance … because they’re not sure how much you will come to rely on them.
3. Many times, friends feel that they cannot be of help unless they can provide a tangible job lead. If they don’t have a position to offer, they stay away—not realizing that their presence is more meaningful than almost anything else.
How to Keep Them Around Anyway
It’s sad but true: While you’re hitting the pavement and sending off résumés, you’ll also have to put in the work to keep your friends. If you want people around during your transition, you have to take control.
• Rather than waiting for friends to step up, reach out proactively.
• Put people at ease by telling them what you need from them over the long haul (their companionship, their ideas, their candor) and what you don’t need (their money, their undue influence, their every free moment).
• Be upbeat: Invite individuals or small groups over for a meal or for a cup of coffee.
• Don’t make your unemployment the sole topic of conversation, but do share your progress and let others know what you are working on and what irons you have in the fire.
• Make it clear that you’re smartly utilizing your free time by networking, picking up new skills, volunteering, etc., and not just moping around the house in your slippers.
Even if you couldn’t avoid the loss of your job, you can avoid the loss of your friends. Make the choice to stay active and excited about your search, and there is a much better chance that your friends will choose to stay in there with you.
Cheryl Rich Heisler is the President/Founder of Lawternatives, a career consulting organization that helps lawyers and other professionals explore career transition inside, outside and around their original fields of specialization. Learn more at www.lawternatives.com.
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