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When Outplacement Is Stingy After a Job Loss

What to do now that firms have slashed counseling for laid-off workers


Losing your job has never been easy. But today, outplacement — a cushion many laid-off workers relied on to soften the blow and ease their transition to a new job — is getting much stingier. And that’s if you get this benefit at all.
 
Fifteen years ago, a laid-off mid-level executive might have reasonably expected his or her ex-employer to invest $5,000 for four to six months of professional job search assistance. Today that same person would be lucky to receive the dollar equivalent of  $1,500 worth of outplacement services. In most parts of the country, that would amount to a paltry two months of coaching.
 
Fewer, Less Personal Services

Not only will most people in their 50s and 60s receive a smaller outplacement package than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, the services they do receive will be much less personal.

(MORE: Does Out-of-Work Mean Damaged Goods?)
 
Individualized, customized programs are increasingly being replaced by cookie-cutter outplacement packages.
 
In the past, most outplaced employees had the opportunity to work with a coach in person through one-on-one, personalized sessions. Today, you’re more likely to be sent to a group outplacement lecture where the counselor addresses the key points of conducting a job search in a way that’s general enough to include everyone and help no one.
 
If you are lucky enough to get an individual counselor, you’ll often have to conduct the sessions by phone, email or with a bare minimum of face-to-face time (no more than two or three one-hour sessions).
 
Online Tutorials, Not In-Person Meetings

What’s more, many “modern” outplacement programs eschew the human component all together, herding ex-employees through a sequence of online tutorials that are marketed as “time-saving” and “convenient.” No longer do you have to put on clothes, get into a car, and interact with another human being. You now have the ability to polish your skills and transform yourself into a job-hunting alpha dog in the comfort of your underwear.
 
Do I sound cynical? I sure hope so.
 
From my 20+ years’ experience helping downsized people from a variety of industries find and keep new jobs, I know that every individual has his or her own set of job-search needs. The only way to adequately address those needs from the perspective of the outplacement counselor, I believe, is to deal with clients individually and customize programs accordingly.

(MORE: 5 Essential Elements for a Resume)
 
I also know that networking and interviewing skills, which are arguably the most crucial skills in landing a good job are frequently sub-par in boomers (many of whom have been out of the job market for 10+ years); require a focused, tailored approach you won’t get in group or virtual settings and don’t develop overnight.
 
Now don’t get me wrong. Not all of the recent developments in outplacement are a disaster.
 
Many outplacement firms seem to be doing a good job bringing clients up to speed with the online and social media avenues of the job search, helping them create LinkedIn profiles and apply to online job postings.
 
Beefing Up Networking and Interviewing Skills

But while it’s extremely valuable to maintain a professional online presence and to incorporate online activity into your job-search portfolio, too many people — and too many outplacement firms — are focusing disproportionately on ramping up online skills at the cost of cultivating networking and interviewing chops.

(MORE: Shift Networking Into High Gear)
 
This is unfortunate, because most open positions are filled through referrals and internal movement. In fact, my anecdotal evidence suggests this is more true today than any time in the past 10 years.
 
So if you’re looking for a job, knowing how to build relationships with key stakeholders and communicate your value-added couldn’t be more important. Unfortunately, the majority of today’s abbreviated and streamlined outplacement programs won’t be able to provide the customized, nuanced advice downsized people need.
 
It’s no wonder James Westaby, an organizational psychologist at Columbia University, told The Wall Street Journal that laid-off workers with “short, one-size-fits-all outplacement packages were less likely to find jobs and often accepted roles with lower salaries” than workers with six months of unlimited job-search help.
 
What to Do When Outplacement Is Puny

So if you’ve just been downsized or find yourself in that position sometime soon, what should you do about the new, stingy world of outplacement?
 
First, don’t be afraid to ask for more outplacement than you’re initially offered.
 
While the cupboard is not nearly as rich as it used to be, in about half of the outplacement cases I’ve worked on over the past three years, companies have agreed to my clients’ requests for a bigger outplacement budget.
 
Sometimes the more senior you are, the more likely it is that the company will be flexible. Other firms are more likely to budge with older workers or with ones in other “protected classes” because they want to reduce the likelihood of litigation. (Protected classes are characteristics of people who can’t be targeted for discrimination and they include race, sex or disability.)
 
Second, if your company has a contract with an outplacement provider, do your research and try to meet with the adviser before you sign your severance agreement. As with finding a doctor, the fit between you and your outplacement provider is crucial.
 
Make sure you’re comfortable with the outplacement arrangement, and if you’re not, request that your soon-to-be ex-employer give you the cash equivalent of the services it offers so you can pick your counselor. Companies tend to be more likely to consent to this than they are to raising the outplacement budget. In my experience, about 50 to 70 percent of departing employees who ask to pick their provider get the green light.

Regardless of how you’re looking to modify your outplacement deal, I’d recommend you consider hiring an employment lawyer to review your severance agreement and to offer extra leverage in negotiations.

Many times an HR officer might play hardball in direct talks with a downsized employee, but will become more flexible when dealing with professional counsel.
 
Don't Be Passive

If you’re unable to make any adjustments and get stuck in a one-size-fits-all outplacement  situation, the key is to not be passive.
 
If you’re in a group setting, show up for each session and don’t worry about being a little pushy. Take a look at my sample outplacement program to get a sense of the steps in a standard outplacement process. If the program you’re enrolled in offers only some of these steps, ask questions during the group sessions to fill in the gaps or see if one of the group providers would be willing to work with you individually for an hour or so.
 
The gaps you’ll have to address will most frequently revolve around: industry-specific issues; how to network face-to-face or over the telephone; how to deal with rejection and how to prepare for the mother of all interview questions, “Tell me about yourself.” 
 
No matter how resourceful you are, though, you might require further assistance after your company-sponsored outplacement program has ended.
 
In that case, contact your alma mater’s alumni association and see if you can supplement your company-sponsored outplacement program through its career- and networking-based support groups. More and more colleges are establishing these kinds of groups to help alums land jobs in a difficult economy. If yours doesn’t, you might be able to take advantage of career webinars or other online materials on your school’s alumni association website.
 
There’s no reason to let your former employer’s stinginess keep you becoming as strong a job candidate as possible.
 

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