Spousal Support

Include spouses in outplacement services to ease the sting of job loss.

HR Magazine, December 2001Months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks further disrupted the U.S. economy, companies of all sizes were letting go of employees by the thousands as they downsized, adjusted to mergers and acquisitions, reorganized and tried to stem financial losses. With the stock market already reeling from the downturn in the technology sector, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—and the ensuing war against terrorism—prompted more layoffs as consumers canceled travel plans, postponed major purchases and hunkered down with their families. 

While officials debate whether the nation is already in recession, or is still headed there, terminated employees are monitoring their own leading economic indicators: How long will my severance pay last? When will I find another job? Will I have to relocate my family? Can my family survive this setback?

But unlike days gone by, more companies are trying to ease the blow for terminated employees—as well as shoring up their own reputation—by offering them and their spouses outplacement services.

Losing a job is one of life’s most difficult challenges, but the employee usually doesn’t face that crisis alone. “When someone loses his or her job, it affects the entire family,” says Mickie Anderson, area HR manager for the 1,900 employees at the Tennessee-Alabama Division of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn. “And anything a company can do to ease the problems that the family faces adds value to that company.”

Right Thing to Do

There are several good reasons for offering general outplacement services for terminated employees, if not their spouses. “There is more of a notion of ‘no-fault’ job loss that exists today,” notes John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, an international outplacement services company based in Chicago. “This doesn’t mean that there is not any fault, but I think companies have come to recognize that there is fault on both sides of the equation. So offering outplacement services creates an equitable culture.”

Steve Roush, SPHR, Ph.D., has seen both sides of the issue, as an HR manager and as an employee who was laid off several years ago. “It makes the employees feel they are still valuable to the company, because the company is making an effort to help them,” says Roush, HR manager for the Roper Corp., a wholly owned General Electric subsidiary in LaFayette, Ga., with 1,900 employees.

For some companies, these services provide high value for low risk, says Jim Tait, president and COO of the Transition Team Inc., an outplacement firm in Knoxville, Tenn. A West Coast client closed a couple of large facilities during a reorganization but did not offer outplacement services to displaced workers.

“They soon discovered they had to deal with the cost of employee sabotage, theft and vandalism as well as seeing a tremendous spike in their workers’ compensation claims,” Tait said. Settling those claims was expensive, and workers’ comp and unemployment insurance premiums increased substantially.

Another reason to offer outplacement benefits is to protect downsizing companies from liability. “Companies often feel that these services can be a good strategy for minimizing the potential for any litigation,” explains Barry Joffe, managing consultant in the Cincinnati office of Drake Beam Morin (DBM), a strategic human resource consulting firm.

“From a company standpoint, the use of outplacement has had a significant impact on eliminating any unwarranted legal response or legal challenge,” says Lynn A. Whipple, HR director for the 475 employees at Philips Consumer Electronics’ Knoxville location. Terminated employees have not raised any legal challenges, and remaining employees feel better about the company, he says.

His and Hers

Most companies have not embraced spousal participation, even though outplacement firms tend to include that option at no additional charge, Challenger says. “We are not seeing many companies offering this, but to some degree society is beginning to demand it. I believe it will hit a critical mass and will just start happening on a much more widespread basis as we see more downsizing and reorganizations continuing.”

Outplacement helps people deal with losing one job and finding another, Challenger says. “During this time, there are a number of emotional issues that have to be dealt with. It’s not just about putting a resume together; it’s also counseling, and the employee is not the only one going through a difficult time.”

Joffe concurs. “Any career transition affects the whole family,” he says. Both the employee and his or her partner are facing upheaval and dealing with negative feelings—denial, anxiety, anger—while trying to accept the situation and move on.

The spouse often experiences more intense emotions because he or she did not see the termination coming, as employees sometimes keep trouble at work to themselves, GE’s Roush says. “The employee goes home at the end of the day and says, ‘Sweetheart, I was just laid off.’” Whether the employee was a CEO or a line worker, that is shocking news. “The spouse says, ‘How can they do that to you?’” Roush says. That shock can lead to litigation.

Coca-Cola’s Anderson agrees. “You do help reduce the risk of litigation when you include the spouses, because many times it is the partners who push the employees to litigate. It’s the ‘They done you wrong’ mentality,” she says. Including spouses in some outplacement services can give them a different perspective and help them understand the company’s actions.

DBM surveyed 3,000 executives in 18 countries about job loss between January 1999 and April 2000. According to its 2000 report, The Impact of Career Transition on Family, Finances and Health:

  • 10 percent of executives said their spouse or partner had not accepted the transition.

  • 19 percent said the job loss was causing trouble in their relationship with their spouse or partner.

  • Those relationship difficulties were proportional to the spouse’s lack of acceptance of the job loss.

Including the significant other in outplacement services also can increase job-search success. “The spouse is intimately tied to the person who has lost his or her job, as well as the decisions regarding the search and transition to a new position,” Challenger points out. Letting him or her in on the transition enables the couple to work as a team, and helps keep the relationship intact.

That gives the downsized worker one less thing to worry about, Roush says. “The last thing employees need when they are looking for a job and feeling good about prospects is to come home and have their spouses respond negatively.”

Not for Everyone

Including the spouse in outplacement services may not be in everybody’s best interest. For example, some employees want to take care of the whole process by themselves, Challenger says. Bringing in their spouse can make them feel more like a failure.

That decision should be based on each individual relationship, Tait agrees, although he believes it usually is beneficial for both people to participate. “All the people who work for the transition team have been through some form of involuntary separation, and we have significant others in our lives,” he says. Knowing firsthand how it feels to share the unexpected bad news with a loved one has convinced them of the need for spousal inclusion, he says.

But their participation should be limited, as not all outplacement services are appropriate for the spouse. Most outplacement companies offer the employee—depending on his or her former position—counseling and workshops, and assistance with skills identification, resume writing, interviewing techniques, financial planning and negotiating. They also usually provide office space, secretarial services, voice mail and computers.

“The spouse should be involved in the front end to get some kind of catharsis, but they don’t need to be there when the employee is actually looking for a job,” Roush says. “They just need to be included enough so that they can feel better about the whole process, to know they are OK, and that the couple will survive this.”

Outsourcing Benefits

Some practitioners recommend outsourcing outplacement benefits—for employees and their spouses—instead of providing them in-house. Employees who have just lost their jobs usually are not in a good mood. “The last thing these employees want to hear is us talking to them,” Anderson says. “They want to talk to someone they think is going to be able to help them, and they don’t think that’s you.”

Spouses may feel the same way, and it may take them longer to come around, Whipple notes. “I went through a job loss, and my spouse struggled for probably four years with bitter feelings and anger towards my previous employer,” he says. “To this day, I don’t know if she would be comfortable being around those people.”

An outside outplacement service also can give managers some company on the hot seat, Whipple says. “When supervisors or managers prepare to break the unfortunate news to employees, they are scared and nervous, and they usually don’t know what to say or how to say it,” he says. “And while I have trained HR people who are capable of training our managers, it is useful for these supervisors and managers to have an outside party to also talk to.”

The internal staff is usually as caught up in the crossfire of emotions as the employees are. “HR professionals are not robots,” he says. “They are people too, and by the time they get ready to talk to an employee about a lost job, they have been involved in the planning, analysis and demographic reviews, and they have been churning inside for weeks, perhaps months.” That may be a good time for HR to pass the baton.

Finally, whereas a company can offer these employees such things as office space and resume-writing assistance, an outplacement firm that is well established can provide displaced workers a vast network for their job search. Joffe notes that 61 percent of DBM’s clients find their jobs through networking; Tait says he has found that approximately 85 percent of jobs come from networking.

Will It Grow?

More companies are likely to include spouses in some outplacement services as they begin to recognize the value, especially because usually they can do so at no additional cost, Challenger says. His advice to employers is to “think about the kind of ethics and values you have as an organization. Think about what you stand for and what you want to convey to your employees in terms of recognition of their lives, not only as workers but also as people with families. This is the type of program that recognizes your employees as whole human beings.”

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine .

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