should I warn my friend he’s about to be laid off?

A reader writes:

About 8 months ago, we hired a new manager who moved very close to me and my family. I am his direct supervisor.

Shortly after they moved here, we invited them over for dinner and we have since become good friends … dear friends, in fact. Our kids play together, we’ve been camping together. You know the kind of friends I’m talking about, the kind you wanna keep your whole life long.

Our company is having to initiate a round of layoffs and his position is being eliminated. The announcements won’t come out for another two weeks and of course, until then I’m supposed to keep the details (i.e., names of those affected) confidential.

My friend is making plans to travel this summer and he is aware that there are rumors of cut-backs in the air. He’s told me, “the sooner I know, the better” as he is in the process of enrolling his kids in school for the fall, his wife is taking college classes, etc.

Do I give him a heads-up and tell him? Or do I wait until D-Day to let the cat out of the bag?

If I tell him, there is a chance that others will find out and my supervisors will eventually discover I broke confidentiality. If I wait until D-day, the late notice will cause considerable stress and hardship – financial and otherwise – for him and his family.

I’m leaning toward not telling him … but I’m perplexed. Any and all advice appreciated.

Ugh. This is a terrible situation.

Your position gives you access to information that you cannot share with others. If your manager finds out you’ve broken that confidentiality, it would rightly call into question your ability to keep information confidential in the future, your ability to have personal relationships with people you manage, etc.

However, I think it’s all kinds of BS that the company knows it will be laying him off and isn’t telling him yet. Yes, I know this is how it’s done, but I still think it’s unfair and inhumane.

I think there’s a middle ground here. I would tell your friend something like, “You know I can’t really talk about this, but what I can do is urge you in the strongest terms to wait until the end of the month before making those kinds of decisions.” Your friend should get the message, at least enough to proceed with caution and to not feel later like you stood idly by while he made financial commitments that you secretly knew he’d regret.

Plus, it’s sensible advice for anyone at a company where there are rumors of layoffs, so you have plausible deniability if ever needed.

What do others think?

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Absolutely agree with The Manager here. There's a way to unofficially, but clearly, let him know. Your friendship will most likely transcend the length of your employment — at least if you follow the advice.
    Personal experience as evidence:
    Since a layoff 8.5 years ago, I have not spoken to a formerly very good friend — and my ex-boyfriend, actually — who *I know* knew and didn't give me *any* indication beforehand. Thankfully, I had been looking anyway and had an offer before it happened, but, like I said, I cut him out of my life that very night. It indicated to me that our friendship/relationship, which had begun well before that job and could have lasted "forever", was less important to him than his job at that company (which wouldn't have been on the line anyway). It's probably worth noting I had *much* less on the line financially than your friend.
    I know some disagree, but that's my standard for friendship, and I think I'm fairly typical in that regard.
    Also worth noting that — as a four-time layoff survivor from the tech bubble and this "downturn" combined — every single company (large, medium, small, whatever) has people who "tell" (and/or insinuate strongly) and I've *never* seen it backfire on those people.

  2. Anonymous*

    Even tho I dont have a lot of work ex under my belt and I am fresh outta grad school with no job in hand. I will strongly agree with the line that has been advised to give him a fair indication of what is to come in store for him. That is the perfect middle of the road gesture to take. As a professional you are not entirely letting the cat outta the bag, and as a friend you are warning him to proceed with caution. Best approach, use it!

  3. Clare*

    I totally agree with the advice. It's a terrible situation to be in, and one which raises questions of loyalty. There was some interesting research about what type of loyalty people think is most important: loyalty to friends / loyalty to company / adherence to a general sense of justness and fair play; and I think your advice balances all three.

  4. Surya*

    Completely agree with you, and have been using almost exactly that line of conversation in similar situations.

  5. Surya*

    Oh, and any friend who expects you to break your work ethic to explicitly tell him about the confidential stuff isnt much of a friend anyway.

    Also, keep in mind that your friend might not get the hint, and may well assume that no hint was given.

  6. Anonymous*

    I agree — in a quiet moment remind them that there are layoffs coming — it's only fair.

    This is kind of the problem that happens with what the military would call 'fratranization' — but, it seems that the friendship is worth the problem.

  7. Anonymous*

    Ugh is right!

    As an HR Director who has had to help plan reductions such as this, I've seen employees make large financial committments that, with my knowledge, were foolhardy at best.

    I respect the company's need to keep things confidential — and agree also there is alot of BS involved with it.

    Your suggested language is spot on! Wish I had heard this about a year ago! But be prepared, no matter how explicit you think you've been, that your friend may not pick up on the message you're giving.

    These are the days when it sucks to be in the know…

  8. Anonymous*

    The Manager always has good advice. I think it would be a good idea to let friends know in advance (when they begin their friendship) that there might be a time when this could happen. You should tell them that, as their friend you may have to lay them off in the future, if that is what your company or you have decided is best for the company. Then, when the time comes that you do have to follow through and give the indication that they should wait, maybe then they will catch the hint. Personally, I think it is best to NOT get that close with or fraternize with employees, as the military guy suggested.

  9. Anonymous*

    I also wholeheartedly agree with AAM. I don't want to repeat what's already been said, so something else to consider:

    Don't assume you're immune just because you know who some of the people being let go are.

    I've seen situations where supervisors had to lay off their directs and thought their own job was safe, but after being the hatchet men, a few weeks later they were let go, too.

    (moral: maintain your integrity by following AAM's advice, but don't sacrifice that type of friendship to be loyal to a company that isn't necessarily loyal to you)

  10. jaded hr rep*

    I'll be the dissenter and say that this is highly inappropriate. Why does a friend get a strong hint, but the other poor saps who have this connection don't. *That's* unfair. And if the hint is really that strong, then sheesh – why not just tell him? Seriously, if you can't take your duties as a manager responsibly, than don't take a job as a manager. It's that simple. By the way, I don't think it's unfair or inhumane to not let employees know right away that they may be laid off. There are sometimes good reasons – legal and otherwise. I don't advocate delaying for the sake of delaying, but in the ones I've planned for, we are often taking time into looking into how to make the situation BETTER for them (what else can we offer, what are our options, etc.?) I know this may not be the philosophy of all companies. In my experience where employees have accidentally learned of being laid off before the event (by indiscretion from others), it has never resulted in a 'better' situation.

  11. Anonymous*

    Just a thought — What if the person being laid off was more than just a very close friend? What if he/she were a relative? (Uncle, Aunt, Cousin, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, etc). Would "Jaded HR Rep" still feel the same way about not letting the person know he/she was about to be let go? While I completely respect the need for an HR manager to do his/her job well and with the utmost integrity, when all is said and done a friendship and/or relationship with a relative could be completely and forever ruined as a direct result of the HR person not telling his/her friend or relative. Now, I know we all think our jobs are important, we all want to take our jobs seriously, we want to do our jobs well and have others take us seriously as well — in other words — we all want respect. But what would you rather have? Respect from your friend/relative or respect from a co-worker who might find out that you "told" your friend about the layoff early? I would much rather have respect from my friends and relatives — I want those people in my life, for the rest of my life. Jobs, employers and co-workers come and go, but friends and family should be more important. Just my two cents. Thanks!

  12. HR Godess*

    I have to say I agree with jaded in this instance. If this person is your friend, they should respect that you have obligations to the company in order to keep your position. If I was asked, I would say that "you know layoffs are coming and until the list is public, I can't comment. If you feel like you can make good financial decisions now, you have to make that decision for you and your family."

    This person is an adult and quite frankly, in this economy, any person working at a company that "might" have layoffs should be concerned and cautious, regardless if they are given a "heads up".

    Being expected to give people preferential treatment is so unfair. Your loyalty should be with your position if you want to keep it.

  13. Neil J*

    Unfortunately, unless the person is a total jerk to work with, laying off is going to be an uncomfortable experience for all parties involved. While genuine friendships are so precious it's hard to condemn their origins, this story is probably a good reminder that whenever possible you want to keep your superior-subordinate relationships as professional as possible to minimize the havoc wreaked on both personal lives.

  14. Anonymous*

    We all agree about one thing – it's a s* time to live in. However, I must bring up one old moral and that is to keep personal relationship separate from those at work! It's lonely out there in the manager's position but they are not supposed to be friends with their subordinates, especially outside of the job. If that doesn't started rumors of all kinds already, hinting to your "friend" and sparing him some pain vs others who are NOT "friends" is quite unfair. How would others to be laid off soon feel? Probably not just angry and upset, but also betrayed.
    You should keep your relationship "clean" if you're in a managerial position and then you won't have to deal with this nightmare of ethics. As for the rest of us, of course,we all would like to have an early warning so we wouldn't make those costly financial mistakes – who wouldn't? Think about Martha Stewart situation who withdrew her funds just before the financial disaster.But that's why there are HR policies in place.

  15. nuqotw*

    Jaded – why can't a company work on making things relatively better for the ex-employees-to-be after telling them?

  16. Ask a Manager*

    I don't think giving someone advice to wait to make major financial decisions until the rumors have shaken out into fact is a huge violation. That's sensible advice the writer would presumably give anyone who asked even if he/she didn't have any inside information. It's just smart behavior.

  17. Anonymous*

    I agree with Surya; if a friend expects you to violate your obligation to your employer just because you're friends, then you're not really friends. Is it crappy that the employer is sitting on that knowledge longer than they should? It sure is. Is the friend the only person in this situation? From reading the post, I don't think so. By giving a friend special treatment, you're putting the rest of the soon-to-be-laid-off people at a disadvantage. Obligations to friends don't supersede your duty as a professional, and if they do, you need to pick a profession where they don't conflict.

    The best solution would be to just give your friend the advice you'd give whether you knew the outcome or not: "You know layoffs are coming soon, and you don't know if you'll have your job after they happen. The only prudent course of action is to prepare for the worst. Don't assume you'll have your job this fall. That way, regardless of what happens, you'll be better equipped to deal."

  18. Aswin Kini*

    Absolute BS. First of all, a company which doesn't keep its employees informed of layoffs is not at all ethical (Infact 99% of the companies today layoff employees at the last minute without any consideration). So, sorry to say this, but I would rather provide a strong hint to my friend that he might be laid off. If you think it's unethical to say directly, you can provide him a strong hint while having a cup of coffee or perhaps forward details of openings in other companies to his personal ID. But do keep him posted!

    While you need to be ethical, you always need to draw the line somewhere. After all, your company isn't gonna lose anything if your friend knows that he may be laid off!

  19. Anonymous*

    I don't think I could look a friend in the eye after being laid off and say, "Becuase it wouldn't be fair to everyone else was was being laid off and didn't know up front, I didn't tell you." It's a valid point, and it may not be fair to the rest of the firm, but as a friend I don't think I'd consider it fair to not at least give a hint.

  20. Anonymous*

    If my boss hinted to me that I shouldn't spend a lot of money right now, I'd pay attention. Seriously. Your friend will not miss the hint. If anything, it may freak him out.

    You need to be prepared for the possibility that this friendship may not survive the layoff. It may not be your fault that his name is on the list, and obviously this news puts you in a difficult spot with your friend, but once it's over, he may not be able to face you from the unemployed side of the fence. Pride, resentment, anger, etc. can all get in the way.

    I'm so sorry you have to go through this.

  21. Sue*

    I was in this exact position during the last recession only I was the person losing my job and there weren't any rumors of impending layoffs. I definitely wish my boss would have warned me. I closed on a new house 3 weeks before I found out I was being laid off. He knew about my impending job loss the entire time I was house hunting. He was let go too but at least he had some warning because he knew he had to let his entire staff go.

  22. Charles*

    Sorry if this comes across as harsh; but I strongly disagree with this advice. AAM, while you claim that it is not a HUGE violation, it is violation none the less.

    It is unethical behaviour that you are advocating.

    What if his friend is one race and someone whom he doesn't tell is another race? Is this okay? Is it okay for only those who "eat lunch with the boss" to be given this kind of advice?

    Part of being a manager is being responsible and that includes not sharing confidential information.

    If this manager cannot understand that then he is not management material.

    Sorry, But I could rant about this all day (as I have on my site) since I have seen this type of favoritism in action too many times to know that nothing good can come of it.

  23. Persis Khambatta (not really)*

    Ms. Manager Lady, you really do know how to work those nuances, don't you? Makes me wonder what kind of company you manage.

  24. Anonymous*

    I do not get all these people who seem to think loyalty to The Man is more important than loyalty to a friend. Have people totally lost their souls out there? I would TOTALLY tell my friend – he/she will most likely be so appreciative they will keep the secret. And thank God I am not friends with some of you out there who would watch a good friend crash and burn in order to protect an organization that could lay you off tomorrow as well!

  25. Anonymous*

    My loyalty is to the roof over my head and food on my table. If sticking up for a friend interferes with that, well… at least I'm honest with myself.

  26. Anonymous*

    A different take: With rumors of cutbacks in the air your friend is still going forward with plans to increase their debt? And asking for as much notice about the cutbacks as possible?

    Good grief! Give them the link to the home page of this site. Tout the site as the motherload of all supervisor/manager advice sites. If that doesn't give them a reality check I'm not sure what else to tell you.

  27. Aswin Kini*

    This is in reference to Charles who responded to AAM.

    This is my question to Charles: You say that AAM is advocating unethical behavior. Well, she never advised the concerned person to explicitly mention to his/her friend about the layoff. So, there is no question of ethical lapses here.
    2) Laying off a person without any prior notice is in itself an UNETHICAL thing. It's strange that managers never understand this. If I became a manager and am given the responsibility to downsize people, I would first call in my team, break the news to them slowly, and ask them to prepare for it. Maybe, I may even try to find jobs for a few of the prospective members who may be laid off.

    Why do the management question only the ethics of the employees while they themselves act unethically???
    Fittest of the survival I suppose???

  28. Anonymous*

    I was recently on the receiving end of a layoff notice. In my case, I found out from others who were told (they weren't supposed to know about it either). I was crushed that my manager had sat on this for months without even mentioning a word.

    At first, I was embarrassed that I didn't know about it when others had found out. After having some time to think, I was glad that I found out through the grapevine because it at least bought me some time in the job search world.

    My first question to my manager was exactly when did he plan to tell me? The last day of my contract? It takes a long time to find a job these days. In my area, HR people I know claim to have 1000 or more people applying for every job. It doesn't even matter what the job is about. There are still 1000+ people applying.

    I think my message is directed more toward the employer about this whole sitting on it and waiting bit. I didn't turn into a dirt bag and stop performing my job to the best of my abilities when I discovered that I was going to be laid off. In fact, I completely understood that I was being laid off because of my employer's money issues.

    I did need the extra time to start marketing myself for another job. At least have that much respect for your employees. Not all of us are going to turn into dirt bags and do nothing for the remainder of our days or have serious behavior or legal issues in the workplace. It seems that employers wait so long on telling the employee that we're already out of work before we can begin searching for another job. We're supposed to by so very loyal to a company that tells us that we'll be discharged at the last minute? So much for loyalty.

    I didn't get the feeling that my employer respected me as a professional by waiting as long as possible to say something. I also feel like a fool for thinking that I could trust any manager to deal with employees as rational, professional adults.

  29. Anonymous*

    Food for thought – many of the inane (and insane) policies/practices about layoffs are a direct result of having such an overly litigious society.

    The confidentiality issues, the last-minute notifications, the escorting from the building immediately in some cases, etc. are not in place because of all the mature, rational people in the workplace � they�re in place because of all the immature, irrational, and especially CRAZY people in the workplace.

    Classic example of a few bad apples ruining it for everyone else.

    Also � I vote for Rachel�!

  30. BossLady*

    I'm surprised how much controversy there is on this topic. When I was reading my AAMs post, her advice was my gut reaction as the best way to go.

    In the end, there isn't a "right" or "wrong" answer. It's a question of which obligations are more important to you, those to your company or those to your close friend. And that's a decision that only an individual can make for themselves.

  31. Anonymous*

    Before you do anything, you must accept the strong possibility that you are going to lose this friendship no matter what you do. If you tell him, he might shoot the messenger. If you don't tell him, he might be mad at you for not saying anything when you knew. Either way, he might be resentful that you still have a job and he doesn't. So if you assume you're going to lose him as a friend regardless, would you rather do right by your friend anyway, or CYA at work? Only you know the right answer to that one.

  32. Charles*

    The reason I consider this supervisor letting his friend know is unethical is because he is not letting others know.

    How about his unethical/unprofessional behaviour to others who report to him? Does he not owe them something? Or is it only those who "brown-nose" the boss are entitled to insider information? The rest of us be damned!

    If this supervisor is really concerned about the company keeping things "secret" then perhaps he should take a pro-active approach and tell his superiors that rumors and the company's secretiveness are killing morale? That's what a professional manager would do!

    I am worked up about this because I was once on the end of being laid off; afterwards I found out that the Department Manager had told a few of his friends and not some of us others? Why was I not entitled to the same information?

    Before the layoffs were announced, one of his friends even handed in his resignation only to be told to hold off for awhile. This was so that his friend, who was planing on leaving anyway could instead get the severance package. I suppose many of you think this was okay? Friends come before "the man."

    That's what so unethical about he suggestion that AAM proposed.

  33. Ask a Manager*

    Charles, I'd suggest he give the same advice to anyone asking for his opinion about making major financial commitments, personal friend or not. (Frankly, I don't understand what his friend is thinking, since there are rumors of layoffs going around.)

  34. Charles*

    AAM – sorry to be beating a dead horse here. But why should only those who ask be given this information?

    I, for one, would never approach a friend in this postion as I would not want to put him/her in an ethical dilemma. If I did it would be with a preface of "you can't tell me anything, right?" This preface would give them an easy "out." Does that mean I should be left out of the loop?

    I still think the best approach for this situation is to let the friend (I think we all agree that this friend does seem clueless at this point and that might be part of the reason why he is being let go) know that there are rumors and that the supervisor cannot disclose any information. End of discussion.

    Then the supervisor should approach his manager to let him know that rumors are affecting morale. Asking "Isn't there something, anything, we can tell people?"

    If the answer is no; then the supervisor has a decision to make. Does his loyalty belong to the company or does it belong to the people who have worked for him, and possibly made his job easier. I would tend to be loyal to my subordinates (perhaps that's one reason I am no longer a supervisor)

    Again, that to me is what a professional, responsible manager would do. To tell some people, in coded language or not, and not tell others is just wrong to me. I don't care what the rational (well, they didn't ask) for this "selective" disclosure is, it is still favoritism.

    It also seems to me as if the original letter writer was asking for persmission to breach his company's trust in him for just this one person. And hoping in the process that he doesn't get caught. That too makes me question his managment skills.

    Friendships do come first for me. But this manager, no, make that ALL managers, owe equal treatment to all their subordinates.

    I think that your blog is a great service to many out there, like myself, who are tying to gain an insight into how managers and others in such positions think. Thank you.

    I mean no disrespect; But I have been on the short end of the stick in this type of situation. That's what has me so riled up about this.

    So my apologies if I come across as harsh or argumentative. I certainly don't mean to.

    Okay, I'll shut up now ;)

  35. Jamieson*

    I don't mean to resurrect the horse, but I can see Charles' point and am also curious. The way the reader posed the question does seem to align with the logic behind AAM's answer. AAM gave an answer related to how to handle a direct solicitation from a friend (and, according to AAM, from ANYONE, keeping it fair). However, my perspective of the reader's question is very different…. she wasn't necessarily asking how to respond to a direct solicitation from a friend, but rather, should she take the initiative to warn a friend that he is about to be laid off. I would like to know the answer to that question, and not to put words in his mouth, but it seems that is, too, the question Charles was posing or the point he was acknowledging.

  36. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    I agree fully with AAM's advice. I would do the same thing that position even though I'm in HR.

    The most you can/should do is suggest that your friend behave in an intelligent manner knowing that layoffs are coming. It's not your responsibility to make sure your friend is fiscally prepared for a layoff. It sucks but that's life.

  37. Ask a Manager*

    Jamieson, I figured the friend was asking, since the letter writer said he was saying things like, "the sooner I know, the better." But if the person wasn't asking and the question is whether or not to take the initiative to warn someone, I think there's less of a moral imperative, since you're not ignoring someone's direct pleas. On the other hand, if someone were making lots of big financial commitments, I'd be inclined to give them some neutral advice to wait out the company's financial situation, solicited or not.

  38. truth*

    This is all insane………. Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money. ~ Cree Indian Proverb

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