Outplacement: genuine personalised support or unhelpful tokenism to look good and minimise fallout?

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I have formed my own opinions about the benefits of outplacement, from my experiences in management consulting and HR over the last thirty years. These have been mixed – more negative than positive. Let me firstly share three negative case studies from my own experience.

1. Years ago, I worked in a large organisation which restructured dramatically to keep up with its competitors. The outcomes: around 1000 senior managers were retrenched simultaneously, all receiving the dreaded pink slip without any forewarning. The reaction? For so many, it was shock, disbelief, denial, rage, anxiety and resentment. For some it was an opportunity to start their own business, retire early, or try something new. Minimal support was given to work through these powerful emotions, and two of them actually committed suicide. I believe we have progressed quite a bit since that occurred those years ago, but still have concerns about the degree of tokenism in outplacement that too often occurs.

2. In another organisation that I worked in, the CEO ordered a very senior executive to be marched off the premises without any forewarning, because he was critical of that person’s management style and results. I personally know how this greatly affected his self-esteem and confidence – he was shattered for quite some time after that event.

3. I carried out telephone crisis counselling for six years and also trained crisis counsellors. The Deputy Director at one point told me that a charitable organisation had just retrenched around half of its staff. How did they do this? They told the staff to be retrenched to stay on the ground floor, advised all the remaining staff to go the first floor, and then told those staff that when they returned to their desks, the other staff would no longer be there. The retrenched staff had to leave instantly – no time to say farewell to the other staff, no support provided – just pack up their personal belonging and leave immediately. A charitable organisation? The Deputy Director was shocked at this heartless action, and so was I.

While these are negative experiences, I should point out that many organisations now do the right thing by their retrenched employees, and there are many very professional outplacement firms that provide valuable support for those in need of help.

It is interesting to read the literature on outplacement. I’d like to share some findings:

(a) There is a considerable contrast between outplacement firms in terms of the quality of services provided to retrenched people. One writer suggests that individualised, customised programs have often been replaced by ‘cookie-cutter’ packages, in which groups are lectured on the key points of finding a job in a way that is ‘general enough to include everyone and help no one.’ This often applies to the more junior staff who have been retrenched, with executives typically being given longer and more personalised support. The more professional outplacement firms do provide much more customised, ongoing support, with a fee to match, of course (you get what you pay for!).

(b) Outplacement services have increasingly made their services available interactively online, over the phone or even by texting, so that no travel is needed. This can be both positive (time saved) and negative (less personal/supportive).

(c) One of the more frequent complaints is about the standardised resumes, application letters and advice often given to them, as well as the lack of individual attention and ongoing support.

(d) A significant proportion of employees receiving outplacement as part of their severance never actually use this service. One wonders why – the answer is not very clear on this. Perhaps the service has not been effectively ‘sold’ to them, they heard negative reports about this service, or they were quick to get alternative employment.

(e) Outplacement firms in effect have two customers – the people being retrenched and the organisation requesting their services. You will appreciate which customer the outplacement firms are more responsive to. If organisations pay lip service to the whole process and are not willing to pay for proper, individualised support, the whole process can be seen as largely a waste of time and money, and reinforcing vulnerability and low self-confidence that participants already feel.

(f) Many employers and outplacement firms under-estimate the significant grief, fear, anger, shock and loss in self-esteem/self-confidence that can accompany retrenchment. Even some of the more reputable outplacement firms do not sufficiently focus on this area. Addressing the psychological components of job loss should be a key part of any outplacement service. People need support to assimilate what has happened to them, and to work through their emotions. They should then be able to approach the whole job-seeking process with greater confidence and purpose.

Narayan van de Graaff

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