Outplacement as we knew it, was coaching for employees exiting an organization after a layoff, furlough, termination, or retirement. This coaching helps employees “land on their feet,” find support in discovering their next chapter, or assists them in charting a course to find their next role. It is an invaluable service, and even more so now as an unprecedented number—33 million Americans as of May 2020—have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. While providing emotional support has always been integrated with Outplacement, something profound is happening that is adding significant dimension to the reality of what will define great outplacement in 2020 and beyond.
Instead of hearing about the sense of loss, identity and desperation that often accompanies the stress of leaving an organization, the feedback from leaders has taken a much more exigent tone. The following comments came from participants in an outplacement program for a national retailer who one day had over 250 stores and a buzzing digital business – and within 72 hours was planning to shutter all units, reduce headquarters staff by a third and eventually leave a wake of jettisoned employees—all as the CEO scrambled to find equilibrium that they could use as a foundation for recovery: “I am 13 weeks pregnant and I am worried about the safety of my baby.” “My father-in-law is an alcoholic, miles away, sheltering in place…alone.” “My brother died of COVID – I couldn’t be there to hold his hand, and we couldn’t gather to bury him.” “I am trying to get up every morning and assure my kids we are ok – but we are not.”
The quotes above are real, and raw in their grief and dissonance. It’s sobering to recognize that these were written by people like you and me who, prior to the pandemic, once met with co-workers on the 22nd floor of a Seattle building overlooking the Puget Sound, on a sweeping campus in Silicon Valley, or at the end of a rambling hallway in a WeWork suite nestled in a New York neighborhood.
Outplacement has always been an important employee benefit, and certainly valued by companies seeking to promote goodwill during a reorganization or executive transition due to performance or retirement. Exiting leaders are generally grateful for this kind of coaching as they transition from one career chapter to the next. Today, though, outplacement takes a turn. During this pandemic, the consumer industries in particular (restaurants, retail, hotel, travel, etc.) have been hyper-focused on shedding talent, all the while hoping to create a lifeline back to the very leaders they will need for recovery in Q3 and Q4. This has put outplacement squarely in the spotlight. And that leads to the second ‘turn.’ Outplacement programs do not look like they did in previous years. The current need goes far beyond reorienting a released leader with the typical support of resume writing, getting a LinkedIn profile, networking mapping, and strategies that will lead to interviews and eventual offers. Instead, today we are spending much more time with leaders supporting their journey through simultaneous crises – and it is not unfathomable that this would overwhelm even the most seasoned executive. These leaders, once adept at managing a P/L, and leading teams they recruited and developed to high performance—are finding themselves trying to find their own footing post-exit, while remaining vigilant to safeguard the health of their families, homeschooling kids, dealing with a lack of personal office space and the sea of uncertainly about their own destiny. And though they know logically that they did not bring this upon themselves – it is inevitable that there is a certain hit to their psyche and sense of self-worth.
Gratefully, we are resilient people. Past crises like 9/11 are testaments to our collective power of resilience. The impact of the 2007 collapse of the housing bubble and subsequent global financial crisis which triggered The Great Recession touched us all as well. Then we watched as homes were lost and literally, in a single day, tuition funds, retirement savings and investments vaporized setting a different course for millions. But no matter the impact, Americans had resilience. Regardless of where we are in the cycle of COVID-19, we also have resolve and hope. And eventually, this too will be registered as a significant event that will memorialize the resulting losses, along with the knowledge that once again, time is a salve that assuages loss. Until then, there is work to be done, and that includes the diligence in how we manage an organization’s most critical asset: its people. Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, once said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Great leaders are strategic, decisive, and nimble during crises. They also manage through a lens of humanity, and with grace. Following are five things to consider as you make organization changes that will impact employees who leave, those that are furloughed with your hope of returning, and those that remain to ensure that the organization survives. Considering these suggestions can make your company memorable for the ‘…way you reacted’ and shaped a formative time.
- Provide a ‘soft-landing’ for everyone impacted: even a little support can go a long way particularly during these unusual times. Providing outplacement initiatives promotes goodwill and makes an important statement about your brand and culture of caring. Certainly, important during the complexity of a pandemic and important when you are looking to attract top talent back to the organization. The programs do not have to be elaborate or expensive. Rather, beyond providing the “nuts and bolts” initiatives that will result in landing jobs – it’s important they are provided on a foundation of approaching participants holistically. Find a partner who gets this concept and is capable of customizing coaching offerings for all levels. Everyone deserves the respect commensurate with supporting and growing your brand, no matter how many years of service they have provided.
- Choose an outplacement partner who understands the theory of change management: remember that no leader can lead without followers. This will help you navigate the internal change process and keep leaders and teams focused on revised strategic plans, with a focus on driving results through smaller and more nimble teams.
- Create ‘feedback loops’ to gauge what is really going on: whether an employee is tapped to remain in the company or is furloughed with an intention of being invited back to lead in the recovery, communication to, and feedback from these people is rich and critical. Organizations are ‘open systems,’ meaning their activity is made of inflows and outflows in conjunction with their outside environment so that they can renew, improve and grow. Feedback loops are mechanisms that feed an open system so the organization can react and recalibrate based on how the environment is responding to a given change. In this case, simple feedback loops can be a sequence of letters distributed directly from the CEO about the status of the company, messages of gratitude, optimism, and insight – that can stimulate feedback and gauge needed recalibration or response as you go. For example, letters sent recently by a client to her organization uncovered an issue with furloughed employees who were having difficulty receiving unemployment benefits. She was able to extend a hand to assist. She learned about what was happening on the personal front and that shed light on the psychological well-being of those impacted by change. This can all be accomplished by providing thoughtfully composed questions, allowing people to engage with you directly by providing a feedback mechanism (this client used Survey Monkey) to hear back from people.
- Focus on the whole person, not just on job hunting skills: for those not returning, outplacement should provide tools that build a psychological sense of wellbeing and methods to navigate as a whole person to a new chapter. We find that a combination of 1:1 coaching, then meetings in small cohorts of 9-12 same-level leaders, is an excellent format to provide individualized support and to build a sense of community for both emotional and job search support.
- Believe that ‘Workplace Survivor Syndrome’ is real: we know that effective leaders are mature and capable of managing crisis. Walter Cummings, a psychologist affirms that “close relationships influence a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional processes in everyday life.” Therefore, recognizing that employee support in crisis isn’t just about the folks exited from the organization; it’s as much about those remaining. Why did they get to keep their jobs, and their workmate across the way did not? What if they are ‘next’ and is it a matter of waiting for the other ‘shoe to drop?’ Should they feel comfortable reaching out to those who are gone or is that a selfish thing to do? During a recent cohort meeting with folks remaining in the organization, they spent a full hour discussing the guilt they felt for the leaders that once surrounded them. They likened it to “those disappearing faces in a photo—who won’t be contributing in the conference room discussions, or meeting at the water cooler to share stories about their kids’ graduation.” Make time and give space for these conversations so that leaders can move forward with a single-minded focus on the job at hand.
And finally, does it work? A recent note sent to their former employer following an outplacement program may be the best testament: “Soon it will be 5 weeks since the devastating news was delivered to me, after 10 years of doing my best, to help build a significant & meaningful culture. Although I still struggle daily with the choices that were made, I do actually want to say THANK YOU… I will use a number of things in my career search, but most importantly my coach was not only knowledgeable, but also sincere, sympathetic and encouraging.”
So, it really is so. As organization leaders managing in times of crisis, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”