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Lost Your Job? Make the Most of Outplacement

If you're laid off and your company sets you up with a career counselor, follow these tips for the best results


“This will be your last week of employment at this company,” says George Clooney, playing the role of a corporate downsizer in Up in the Air. Then he closes his briefcase and leaves. In real life, when a firm is laying off a senior employee, a career counselor from an outplacement firm is the person who sits down next.
 
This counselor’s primary job is “to get the person functioning by the time he leaves the building so he doesn’t wander off into traffic or ram his car into a bridge abutment,” says Howard Campbell, a career coach for the past 20 years. If the counselor does his job right, you'll spend your time searching for a new job instead of suing your former employer for wrongful discharge.
 
How a Career Counselor Can Help
 
When people get laid off, they often want nothing to do with their old company, and that includes the counselor the firm brought in to be their new friend. That's the wrong attitude. If you are willing, you can use a career counselor and an outplacement firm to get on with your life and on to your next gig. A career coach you hire on your own can also be helpful. ("The Truth About Career Coaches" article on Next Avenue offers advice on what to look for in one of those.)

Some career counselors rock. Take, for example, the one Chicago IT professional Michael Humphries had in 2009. This counselor gave Humphries his cellphone number and told him to call before and after each interview to strategize the next steps in his job search.

 
But outplacement can often be nearly useless. The counselor might scrape together listings from general online job boards, like Monster.com, the workshops may turn out to be pointless, and the resumé advice abominable. One manager told me that after he had to lay off several employees, he took a look at the resume the outplacement firm wrote for one of them. “I was embarrassed how badly the resume missed the person's strengths,” he said.

How Much Outplacement to Expect
 
The amount of time and service you’ll receive from an outplacement firm generally depends on your seniority. The higher up you were in the organization, the more you’ll get. But the specifics depend on the contract your ex-employer hammered out with the outplacement firm.
 
Citibank gave one downsized analyst — who requested anonymity to avoid violating the terms of his separation agreement — six months of outplacement help, while an analyst several levels below him received only three months. CNN gave 12 months of outplacement to an executive with 20-plus years of experience.
 
Four Outplacement Tips
 
How can you get the most out of your outplacement counselor? Here are four tips:

1. Practice with your counselor exactly what you'll say when prospective employers ask you why you lost your job. The pros recommend keeping it simple, with words like: “My position was eliminated.” Don’t go on a tear about how unfair the firing was. Badmouthing your old employer flags you as damaged goods.

2. Go to the outplacement counselor’s weekly networking meetings. At these gatherings, you can benefit from others' experience, learning what works and what doesn't in the job search process, and the regular interaction will help keep your spirits up. Being part of a group also makes you feel more accountable for your progress, so it’ll keep you motivated and looking for work. And the networking could pay off: You might make a connection that leads to an interview and ultimately a job offer.


3. If you’re in your 50s or older, ask your counselor how to turn your wisdom and experience into an asset. For example, see if the counselor can help you target smaller companies or outposts of larger ones that could use a seasoned manager.
 
4. If your career counselor is terrible, complain. Ask the office manager at the outplacement firm to set you up with a different one who has the time, interest and smarts to advise you properly. Remember: No matter how much injustice you've suffered from downsizing, what happens next is up to you.

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