Personalized Transition

By Donna M. Owens Mar 1, 2008

HR Magazine, March 2008 Workers are demanding more sophisticated outplacement services.

The recent rash of layoffs at U.S. companies is putting renewed emphasis on outplacement services. For some workers, the announcements spark painful memories. Damian Birkel still remembers that December day in 1990 when he lost his marketing and merchandising job at a major corporation. It happened on his birthday.

“We [employees] were called together and told we were being let go,” recalls Birkel, a mid-level manager at the time. “Dozens of people were basically out on the street.”

While the company provided outplacement services to ease the transition, Birkel says the myriad financial, professional and emotional challenges that accompanied his loss weren’t adequately addressed.

While Birkel eventually landed a new position, he vowed “never to forget what it was like to be unemployed.

“People who have lost jobs are most concerned about how they’re going to survive,” says Birkel, now a career counselor and founder of Professionals in Transition, a North Carolinabased support group for displaced workers. “After the trauma, they need to feel as if someone cares.”

The concept of greater “care” and responsibility for workers caught in the cross hairs of cutbacks, downsizings, mergers, acquisitions and restructurings may be driving some trends in the $3 billion outplacement services industry. Many industry experts say the demand for outplacement services is growing among large and small enterprises alike and across sectors. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of mass layoffs—involving at least 50 persons from a single employer—was 15,493 in 2007, up from 13,998 in 2006.

  • Leading outplacement services providers say new models for helping displaced workers share the following characteristics:
  • A move toward equal partnerships between former employees and employers.
  • Socially responsible and compassionate behavior.
  • Greater choices when it comes to outplacement delivery methods, including increased use of technology.

There is more emphasis on personalized one-on-one career guidance, access to tools to develop employees’ critical skills and special content matched to careers. Experts say employees also want to quickly connect with outplacement services and to maintain those ties until they’ve achieved their goals.

The Evolution of Outplacement

Employers have been providing outplacement services to employees in transition since the late 1960s. The roots harken back to World War II, when employment services aided returning veterans.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and outplacement services still remain critical for organizations planning and executing reorganizations and the like.

According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, some 7.2 million Americans were unemployed as of November 2007, a slight increase over 2006.

Against this backdrop, experts say the changing needs of organizations and their workers are creating an evolution in outplacement services.

“Our firm has moved away from some of what we did 10 years ago,” says Jim Appleby, senior vice president of business development with Lee Hecht Harrison, a global careermanagement services company. “Two- or three-day workshops used to be common,” explains Appleby, who is based in Charlotte, N.C. “Clients were given hard copies of materials and manuals. We would teach them about the job search, resume building, networking, interviewing skills and negotiating the offer. … It was almost an information dump.”

Today’s improved delivery methods may incorporate some of those essentials, Appleby notes, but they avoid a one-sizefits- all approach.

“People want more choices and opportunities,” he says, adding that Lee Hecht Harrison’s outplacement services still incorporate one-on-one counseling, but virtual tools and e-learning, workshops, and teleconferences have been added to meet the learning styles of the different clients the firm serves.

Today’s career coaches have wide-reaching backgrounds and knowledge of various industries, Appleby says. They “become more like strategists, especially in the first weeks and months of [a client’s] job search.”

Tailoring Options

Appleby says the need for increased outplacement services has much to do with shifting workplace demographics.

“For the first time, we have three or four distinct generations in the workplace: Generations X and Y, mid-career workers, and baby boomers,” he says. “They’re all operating under different cycles of career transition activity. … These transitions all have to be taken into account.”

For instance, Lee Hecht Harrison has a program for midcareer workers and baby boomers called “What’s Next? A Roadmap for Exploring the Rest of Your Life.” The program is designed to offer options and alternatives to those age 50 and older by addressing their individual needs.

“We help them determine what is possible,” says Appleby. “Some may want to retire, work part time or do volunteer work. Some may want to do something entrepreneurial and hang out their own shingles. We give them resources that can help.”

Tailoring services to separated employees in areas that matter most to them has resonated with leading outplacement services providers nationwide.

Right Management, the world’s largest outplacement firm and a subsidiary of international employment giant Manpower Inc., worked with International Communications Research in Media, Pa., in 2006 to help determine criteria defining satisfaction and success for outplacement candidates.

Researchers polled 21,000 outplacement candidates in 19 countries. Those surveyed were mostly male (59 percent), ages 40 to 49 (39 percent), with salaries from $50,000 to $125,000 (62 percent).

The company learned that employers and employees alike wanted more choices, connections and measurable results. It learned that displaced employees aren’t necessarily just seeking jobs like their previous ones; they more frequently change career directions and seek assistance with changing job functions and industries, and explore a range of work/life options and entrepreneurial and retirement alternatives.

The research showed that 42 percent of outplacement candidates found new positions through networking, vs. only 8 percent who answered an advertisement. This information proved critical in helping the company launch a global outplacement service known as RightChoice.

“It focuses on personalized choice for all candidates—for instance, how they engage in our services, [whether] from home, office or a combination,” says Right Management’s Tony Santora, senior vice president and global practice leader for transition services, who is based in Philadelphia.

RightChoice has recently been enhanced with iView, a career development solution that combines web-based technology with one-on-one coaching to help users practice and assess interviewing and presentation skills. With iView, employees respond to preselected custom questions and record answers via webcam. Career counselors then provide guidance and targeted developmental coaching based on individual needs.

Outplacement candidates “can see and hear themselves, then assess their body language and the way they responded to questions,” explains Santora. Launched in North America in 2007, iView is scheduled for global implementation in 2008.

Structured Support

While workforce reductions may never touch some companies, they have become a painful reality for others across the country.

Novell, a Massachusetts-based software company specializing in network operating systems, numbers among those dealing with the issue.

John Flinders, director of human resources, has been with Novell for about 15 years and says his team has been “a huge supporter” of outplacement services.

“Severance is important, but fairly common,” Flinders says. “In addition to cash and money, we’re looking to help our people, who have great talent, find other jobs.”

The organization contracts with two leading outplacement services firms, including one geared to upper-level executives.

“Some people want to do it on their own, but we strongly encourage them to go to outplacement,” says Flinders. “We have people who have not [created] resumes in years; others need [help with] interviewing skills. This allows them to take some responsibility for their careers. … Ninety-nine percent say they like having someplace to go and something positive to focus on.”

In the past, outplacement services typically ended before many candidates achieved their goals. Experts say today’s employees in transition are demanding increased accountability, meaning they want to remain continuously connected until the outcomes are successful.

“We get reports about the effectiveness of the services,” says Flinders. “That helps us determine the value, and if it’s working.”

Employees in the banking industry have also been affected by corporate changes. Wachovia Corp., based in Charlotte, N.C., announced plans last year to buy A.G. Edwards Inc. in St. Louis. The $6.9 billion merger will reportedly create the second-largest retail brokerage in the nation and displace some employees.

Mark Cupples, Wachovia’s HR communications manager, says the company takes its commitment to displaced workers seriously and works with a provider of career transition services to complement its own outreach.

“The first thing we do is set up an on-site career center in the [employees’] locations,” says Meredith McGough, a senior vice president and head of recruiting integration. Staffed by a vendor and outfitted with phones and computers, the centers allow employees in transition to meet with career counselors, complete online job searches, refine their resumes and more. These centers remain operational “as needed,” says Cupples.

Providing on-site support can be valuable to employees: Right Management’s research found that some 86 percent of displaced workers remain in their communities after they’ve left an organization.

McGough says Wachovia also assigns each transitioning employee a “candidate advocate.” Internal advocates help former employees navigate services and sourcing opportunities. With a goal of redeploying talent within the organization wherever possible, advocates possess skills appropriate to those they try to help. For instance, an advocate assigned to a technology worker knows and understands the industry and its needs.

In addition, an HR person “reaches out directly to every employee through personal phone calls and other contact,” McGough says.

Wachovia also trains its managers in how to deal with transitioning workers.

“There’s a high value placed on preparation of the manager,” says Cupples, who notes that all managers must take a required training course called “Displacement Notification Manager Training.”

“When we meet with employees to deliver a displacement notification, it is always done in a very private setting, in a caring way,” Cupples explains. “We make sure that resources are available on-site or nearby on the day of announcement for employees who may need some space to think through the news. In some instances, we have scheduled conference rooms where EAP [employee assistance program] counselors are available to talk with employees on the day of announcement if needed.”

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Web Extras

Web site:
The International Association of Career Consulting Firms

Stress in the Workplace
(American Psychological Association)

Safety Facts

Experts say today’s outplacement candidates want the services described below.

Linkages and connections: Outplacement services that continue until workers have achieved a successful outcome that they define—whether securing a new job, starting a business or exploring other work/life options. Industry standards show that two-thirds of outplacement programs expire before candidates transition to new roles.

A jump start: Outplacement programs that begin quickly, so transitions are smoother and more likely to produce opportunities.

Expert career guidance: Personal support from career and job-resource consultants to identify the employees’ best possible career paths.

Varied access to resources: Access to career assistance anytime and anywhere, whether from workers’ homes or from outplacement firms’ offices.

Market connections: Help in building, expanding and managing their career networks.

Skills and tools: Access to tools that will help them conduct and manage an effective career transition.

Superior technology: Online resources that can be accessed around the clock.

A human touch: Compassion and hope as they face the grief of job loss. A 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association found that three-fourths of Americans reported that work, along with money, was a significant source of stress in their lives.

Sources: Right Management Inc., Lee Hecht Harrison, Professionals in Transition, American Psychological Association.


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