Benefits on the Fringe: Outplacement Programs

Welcome to Benefits on the Fringe, the monthly column where Jason McDowell covers the most unique benefits today's employers are using to woo talent, as well as advances and innovations in the employee benefits realm.

Layoffs are the last thing any employer wants to think about, but with the Great Recession just behind us and relations between the U.S. and several of its trading partners on uncertain footing, many of today's workers are worrying about their professional futures. This month in Benefits on the Fringe, we'll examine outplacement benefits and how they can not only waylay many of those fears for employees, but also attract top talent in the first place.

Providing workers with outplacement services can have several positive effects for both the company and the worker. With Glassdoor and similar sites just a click away, the last thing a business can afford is a dozen (or a hundred) laid off workers slamming them with bad reviews. In that sense, outplacement can be critical for protecting corporate brands. Employees, meanwhile, will feel that the organization has the best interests of its workers in mind – even when it has to let those workers go.

The Employee Life Cycle

When people talk about "life cycle management," they're usually referring to the life of a product – i.e., where it begins and what happens to it when there is no longer a place for it. However, employees have life cycles as well.

"Companies spend significant amounts of money on developing their brands and trying to be known as employers of choice," says Elaine Varelas, managing partner for talent management and career transition firm Keystone Associates. "This money is not well spent unless they provide for their employees throughout the entire employee life cycle. Professionals within every industry talk about what companies do, what they don't do, and how they treat employees. How companies treat separating employees has a huge impact on the reputation companies have as employers, which can impact recruiting efforts, especially when employers are looking for top talent."

It's important to remember that layoffs aren't always permanent. A company may need to lure some of its talent back once it has made a financial recovery. That's why organizations should do all they can to ensure laid off workers don't leave with hard feelings.

"Many layoffs are due to financial situations, and just as many are based on changes in strategic direction," Varelas says. "All employees are concerned about is compensation (severance), healthcare (COBRA), and their careers (outplacement). Companies are concerned about getting talent and the cost to recruit competitively. Organizations will not be able to rehire anyone who had the experience of being treated unfairly."

Businesses that wish to provide the best possible experience across the employee life cycle should consider turning to experienced consultants for help.

"A significant part of outplacement that is often overlooked is the pre-reduction consulting," says Varelas. "Outplacement consultants work with human resources to plan the effective communication of the message and the physical and cyber security needed.  Efforts are coordinated between managers, IT, physical plant and facilities staff, PR, security, HR, and outplacement professionals. How employees are encouraged to pack and leave the facility, or managed if there will be a working notice, are all discussed with strategic methods for implementation."

What Outplacement Does (and Doesn't Do)

Many employees assume that an outplacement program will put them on a direct path to new employment, but that's not entirely accurate. Obviously, no company will provide a service that funnels talent directly to its competitors. What outplacement does do, however, is give employees the skills they need to be competitive in the job market.

"Outplacement creates the best candidates possible for new opportunities," Varelas says. "After a job loss, many people need emotional support, which good outplacement provides. They need a strong public statement about what happened, and why they are back in the marketplace. They need to understand how to partner with recruiters. Outplacement provides instruction and skill development in these areas, as well as resume development and production, networking, interviewing, negotiation, using technology in the job search, and more."

While outplacement doesn't provide employees with jobs, it does provide them with everything they need to find jobs on their own. This eases the transition and helps employees look back positively on their time with a previous employer.

Networking builds careers, and one of the most common pieces of advice for people in the professional world is: "Don't burn bridges." But bridges can be crossed in both directions, and companies that want to remain competitive in the talent market must do what they can to ensure they, too, don't burn any bridges with their former employees.