The Long Goodbye

  “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

It’s an unfortunate truth the support provided to employees exiting an organisation won’t come from George Clooney. Neither will it come in the form of neatly motivational sound bites such as the one above from his 2009 movie Up in the Air, where he plays a “transition consultant”.

Fortunately, the likelihood of those employees receiving some form of support is increasing. As Kumar Abhishek, vice-president of human resources for Asia Pacific at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, notes: “If you look back more than five years at the outplacement scene in general, the conversation might have been around whether a company should do something in terms of support and if government or organisations should pick up the cost.

Now you see a second phase where outplacement support is becoming an accepted part of the package for multinational organisations and the question is more likely: what sort of support should the company provide?

There’s no doubt the support is needed. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 8.8 million jobs have been lost in the US alone since the start of what is now being called the Great Recession in late 2008.

Though the timing of individual countries’ entries into and exits from recession varied, the scale of the financial crisis, with its roots in the US housing bubble, is such that its effects have been globally felt in a widening spiral.

So what type of support can employees expect and why do companies increasingly feel they should provide it?

Managing change

Typically, employees whose companies offer outplacement support can expect a range of services provided by specialist third-party firms.

“Candidates”, as the industry likes to call them, will often be linked with a career consultant whose job is to help them assess the right fit between their skills and interests, and the job market. This might take the form of weekly one-on-one sessions of about an hour.

That personal touch is the key, since a 2012 Australian report by Choice Career Services, noted one-on-one coaching was the most highly rated outplacement service by retrenched employees.

With 85% seeing this as valuable support, it led to other common transition services such as job interview techniques (83%), resume preparation (79%), networking skills (74%) and understanding employment markets and agencies (73%).

Taking time to talk to a coach about goals is also important. Specialist outplacement firms note that, rather than simply trying to identify the nearest identical job to the one just lost, candidates are encouraged to think more broadly. Starting a business, working as a consultant, studying or perhaps even deciding the time is right to retire can be equally valid responses to an enforced period of unemployment.

Those outplacement firms can also provide guidance to employers around the nitty-gritty of managing off-boarding, as well as working with the “survivors”. It’s sometimes forgotten employees who keep their jobs often experience a destabilising period of uncertainty.

Left alone, watching long-term friends leave while new management arrives, “survivors” may be susceptible to headhunting advances or are simply less productive.

The Choice Career Services report notes implementation of “resilience” programmes can reduce work-related mental ill-health cases by 60% and bring a 25% increase in staff satisfaction.

Return on investment

Before the fairytale becomes too alluring, it’s worth remembering businesses only run so far on sentiment. The bottom line is bound to make an appearance somewhere, particularly if a company is reducing headcount to reduce costs.

Alysson Do, vice-president and HR business partner for Asia Pacific and emerging markets at Pitney Bowes, explains: “I think if we look at the global picture, then in more mature HR markets such as the US and Europe, the conversation is about the evolution of outplacement support.

“In Asia, HR is sometimes still fighting. They still need to have the conversation about whether to provide support. People might ask, ‘will I spend four to six thousand dollars per employee for outplacement support?’”

That there is a human cost to job losses is clear. “Whether you’re a fork-lift operator or a CEO, when you hear you’ve lost your job it’s like ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’. There’s an instinctive emotional response, ‘How will I feed my family?’” Do says.

Beyond that instinctive response, more complex conflicts start to take root. Arold de Vries, HR director at Damen Shipyards, has experienced them. “I’ve had a guy come to me with a month left before his job ends saying, ‘I haven’t told my wife yet’. It’s very difficult for people to know how to deal with the emotional side of job loss,” he says.

“How to deal with it at home, how to explain it to the children, what should they say at school when the other kids ask? They don’t know. So instead they put it all in a secret box.”

But is there a business benefit to offering outplacement support, and how are HR professionals framing that conversation?

Those interviewed for this article expressed a general view that organisations should be willing to do “the right thing” and support employees to ease their transition between roles.

Adrian Wong, HR director at McGraw-Hill Asian Holding, says there’s a sense of responsibility to provide counselling and career advice. “We see the separation package should be complemented by an outplacement package. We should care for employees who are affected by restructuring changes, rather than because there were individual performance-related issues. We owe them support.”

It goes further than that. Even individuals who appear unfazed by job loss may be unaware of the challenges they will face, says de Vries.

“It’s not just the CV-writing part, it’s emotional too. There’s a danger people think, ‘Ah, I can do this myself’. Then six months later they’re saying, ‘this is strange, why don’t I have a job yet?’

“Networking, how to sell yourself, the need to go out and be assertive – that needs to be coached and it takes courage.”

Then there’s the devil’s advocate question. Why should an organisation take on the additional cost of helping people who won’t directly contribute to its business in the future?

The answers from senior HR professionals highlight the fact that, beyond the moral obligation or the safety net for those who may not be thinking clearly in the heat of the moment, there’s a commercial argument in favour of outplacement that organisations ignore at their own risk.

Part of it is good brand management, says Abhishek, who warns a reputation can be easily tarnished online. “The internet allows people to share the way companies behave towards employees who are leaving. If you can be seen as a ‘fair’ organisation, you can influence the way people talk about you after they leave,” he says.

The impact of social media as an arbiter of fairness is a recurrent part of the message. It prevents companies from stage-managing the process and provides employees with huge networks across which to express their satisfaction or otherwise.

“If someone’s happy they might tell three people. If they’re unhappy they’ll tell 10,” Do says.

“Across Asia, corporate and social responsibility is becoming more important, so taking care of people makes good business sense – it makes people want to work for you.”

Increasingly, companies are looking at the entire life cycle of an employee. Retrenchment is a fact of business life, but the difference between handling it well and poorly can impact talent pipelines years into the future.

Doing it right

While people losing their jobs are unlikely to sing the organisation’s praises, there are some strategies that can help reduce dissatisfaction.

Clear communication is one. Choice Career Services found more than two-thirds of those surveyed felt their employer did not give careful consideration to explaining what would happen when the skills, knowledge and duties of the person leaving were no longer there. More than half felt the reasons for making a position redundant were not clearly communicated.

Do is emphatic on the subject. “Prepare, prepare, prepare, especially with line managers and the communications plan. You need to be internally transparent and set out a vision for the future. Don’t just plan up to the date that the announcements are made, you also need to have a plan for days one to 30 beyond that.”

Getting specialist support is recommended as well, de Vries says.

If you can, outsource the outplacement services. Don’t be Florence Nightingale, treat it like a whole new project – you won’t have time to provide the support people need yourself.

Despite well-made plans, the result isn’t always ideal. What the business may see as small details can be felt intensely by exiting employees. Jan Davis, head of talent management at ArcelorMittal, was offered an array of support when she opted to take a package from her previous Fortune 500 employer. She even used an option to retrain in a new field – selecting garden design – feeling she had tired of the corporate world. However, the overall exit process left her cold. “It didn’t make me feel better. There wasn’t sufficient tailoring or attention paid to seniority. Coming from a senior position in HR I didn’t need interview training.”

As her thinking evolved, Davis decided she did still want to work and when an offer from ArcelorMittal presented itself, she took it. She notes the effect a poorly handled departure can have.

“It was not a slick off-boarding process, there was no exit interview. It felt like a box was ticked and I got a pat on the head, but it wasn’t good value for money.”

The choice of a specialist provider is also important, says Wong. “It’s important to select a vendor carefully, looking at their experience levels.”

Individual consultants can also make a difference. At Pitney Bowes, Do has worked with Right Management and emphasises the need to select a consultant to fit the organisation.

“I ask who the account director is and think ‘can you connect with my people?’ The demographic and cultural fit needs to be right.”

Abhishek adds an additional consideration. “Multinational companies may prefer regional agencies. If you need to provide support across several countries, picking a regional player will help the service stay consistent.”

The road ahead

Outplacement support, like much of HR, is still evolving. Abhishek sees the feedback loop as one area he would like to see develop further.

Do hopes further sophistication of support offered in Asia is possible. “Working in US companies I’ve held recruitment fairs on-site, inviting recruiters and competitors to come to meet exiting employees. I haven’t seen that in Asia yet.”

In career transitions, it’s the initially difficult conversations that unlock value – Clooney was right in that respect. Handled poorly, the end of a job negatively affects individuals and corporate reputations. Handled well, there’s the potential for respect on both sides of the equation.

Author: Rebecca Lewis - May2013


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