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Reemployment Economics

Change can only be facilitated, not decreed. – Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy

The toughest job an executive has is terminating someone. Sometimes it is a department or a division, sometimes a general cutback or a reorganization caused by a merger. Always men and women and personal relationships are involved. The termination act calls for inflicting pain, and no one does that willfully or enjoys it. This article outlines what can be done to alleviate and shorten that pain and to reduce the executive's guilt feelings associated with firing someone. (The term “reduction in force” does not diminish the impact of termination, which employees call “firing”; it is just softer on the tongue.)

Pain? In the middle of an industry wide collapse, Bill, a vice-president of sales, was among those terminated when a division closed down. He was home before noon and told his wife. She was encouraging. He was depressed. A generous termination payment did not lessen his feeling of not being needed - almost of uselessness. Two days later, this “enthusiastic and successful” executive meekly thanked his wife for not leaving him - a man who, at 46, was over the hill, unemployed, virtually a bum, who could no longer support the family he loved. He had always been a “good provider,” he said, but no longer. And there were no job possibilities because the whole industry was depressed. “How could this happen to me, when I've worked continuously since I was 14? Even in high school and college the jobs found me! And I haven't missed a day through sickness all that time. I never had to ask for a job!”

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His wife's assurances, a year's salary in hand-all these were insignificant in the face of his having no place to go to work, no way to earn a living. If anything did come along, he reasoned, he'd have to take a serious cut in the $45,000 salary he was accustomed to and he'd have to start again at the bottom - that is, if anyone would even hire a middle-aged man with experience in only one industry. And he repeatedly sank into depression, not even playing the records he loved, not showing a sign of the toughness that had been his norm, not cracking jokes. He had become a man who had lost his identity and believed he would never recover it.

After two months and several relapses, all of them far from the first depression, Bill was reemployed in a different industry with plenty of opportunity at an annual salary of more than $34,000. Bill's boss initiated the reemployment counseling.

There is a difference between what has come to be known as “outplacement” and reemployment. With outplacement as it is usually practiced, the concern is with assisting in placement of the person as fast as possible. With reemployment counseling, the concern is both with rebuilding the person's identity and with helping the person get his or her next position. Reemployment takes no longer, usually costs less, and is often faster and more helpful than placement efforts. A strength identification process is one key difference; another is the dynamics associated with group process.

Important side effects of reemployment counseling include very fast release from guilt feelings for the executive who institutes the termination, and a rise in productivity among retained employees. Usually more than two thirds of those fully involved in reemployment counseling find jobs at comparable pay within 90 days, an outcome that arrests any potential rise in unemployment-tax payments for the company.

Let's return to Bill, the vice-president of sales. The chairman of the board, who fired him and knew him socially, offered to write his curriculum vitae or resume and then reproduce it. (As Bill had written it, it was an uninspired listing of his education and work associations.) The chairman also insisted that Bill be counseled individually. Bill intensively studied his personal and work achievements and saw for the first time that he had enjoyed selling for 34 years, because at age 12 he was selling advertisements for his junior high school yearbook.

Making that connection helped him see his lifetime selling ability, and began his turnaround. Functional self-analysis enabled him to test the reality of the strengths he had to offer his next employer, the areas in which he could prove dependable and productive; it also indicated his style as a sales executive. At that point he had lunch with his boss, the company chairman (visiting first with some former co-workers), and thanked him for the opportunity that had resulted from his being fired.

Then he wrote a report on his executive style and effectiveness. This report gave the reader facts that might not be easily discerned at an interview, and certainly would not be revealed on a chronological resume or a job application form. It described him as an operating person, summarized his relevant background, then gave examples of his effectiveness in the areas of selling and sales management, policymaking, problem solving, personnel selection and development, and marketing strategy. It closed with personal and family data, education, and the names of companies with which he had been associated.

It was a comfortable two-page report revealing his strengths, which is all an employer really wants to pay for. Most of the counseling done to this point can be just as effectively done (sometimes more so) with a small group and at lower cost. But many executives value extreme privacy and pay the greater cost.

Bill resisted contacting his friends for help in finding a job - understandably. It is the best advise for professional and management people to avoid asking for jobs when they are actually seeking one. The person who says, “Do you have a job?” or “Could you refer me to a position?” quickly becomes persona non grata, forgotten, avoided. Bill instinctively shrank from this, but he knew no other way.

Top-flight executives are always “window shopping” for talent. One of their key responsibilities is finding people who can reliably get work done. And much of the time, they have projects on the back burner, waiting for the right time and the right people. Bill needed to circulate among such executives and let them “window shop” him. He was practiced in how to do this. (Members of groups practice with each other, under supervision and often with the aid of TV replays.) He began to see himself as the means by which one executive could help another to window shop a talented sales executive.

He also practiced building the climate for these window-shopping interviews by first visiting with three executive friends. “I don't expect you to know of a position,” he would say, “but I am looking for one. So I had an expert help me develop this report on my style and effectiveness. I've really never looked for a job before, so I'd like to know if you think this report will help my search.” This approach invited them to criticize the “expert help.”

They asked him lots of questions, admitted that they had learned from the report things that they hadn't previously known, and said that they thought the report would help him. (Two of them suggested that he also prepare a chronological resume showing the times of his employment, his responsibilities, and his employers.) All of them said they would keep him in mind if they heard of something that could use his combination of talents. He said he expected to get something within six months, and that he'd keep them informed of his progress, if they didn't mind. They agreed.

Then he asked for an introduction to someone who might also be willing to keep him in mind for any possible openings in his line. To his surprise, he was given four contacts (one said he'd try to think of someone, and would let Bill know), as well as permission to use the names of his other two friends. That opened window-shopping doors to executives he might otherwise never have met.

Obviously this contact-creating process established a climate in which he was constantly encouraged and could not be turned down flat. He began to see two new people each day, whenever possible. Between meetings he wrote thank-you notes to his contacts and helpers. Of course he also answered advertisements, registered with appropriate private and governmental executive placement services, and collected tax-free unemployment compensation. The placement agencies pooh-poohed his report, but he was prepared for that.

Sixty pleasant contact interviews later (he often was invited to lunch and sometimes did the inviting), he started a series of job interviews which led to three offers, a negotiation of salary and benefits, and acceptance of the one that had the second-best base pay but that most closely matched his strengths and offered a good opportunity for growth.

Bill closed his job-finding project by writing to each of his window shopping contacts, telling them of his achievement and thanking them for their encouragement and help. And a special letter went to the man who had terminated him.

The “toughest job” of an executive will always be traumatic, but re-employment counseling can quickly alleviate the stress and pain, prevent added unemployment taxes, and restore goodwill. And the cost isn't much - usually about 10 percent of the terminated person's salary (with complete follow-through help until he or she gets a raise or promotion) or about $1,400 in an individualized group with four months of follow-up (twice as long as needed by the average person).

An executive who feels guilty about meeting the need of an organization when it requires terminations will delay the required action and thereby hurt his organization. With reemployment counseling available, the humanitarian instincts of such an executive can be met in the best interests of all, on a cost-effective basis with maximum consideration for the persons involved.

There is always pain in terminating someone, just as there is some pain in all kinds of progress. Reemployment counseling is responsible social action that has tax, community, corporate, and personal benefits as well.

Society | Self-Help | Work


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