by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®
Nearly thirty years as an outplacement consultant has taught me that when terminated executives are in a shocked, upset state, they think about suing their former employers. When they are feeling productive, hopeful, and directed toward the future, they don't.
Usually there is some element of unfairness about a termination. It comes at the "wrong time:" six months before vesting in the pension plan, during a divorce, or when a close family member is sick or dying. There's seldom a "right time" to be let go.
Or the dismissal is handled badly. Dick Sullivan, an oilfield executive with a 22 year tenure, was fired one Friday afternoon by a total stranger. He was told to "pack up and get out." And he never forgot this callous treatment, even though he is now happily re-employed.
The exact moment of termination is a crisis point. Either it's handled well and everything thereafter goes smoothly, or it is handled poorly with negative consequences.
Ellen Sampson, age 62, was a loyal, trusted employee of a bank holding company. She had worked there more than 20 years. The day I arrived, she was called to the coffee shop at a Holiday Inn and fired by three people at once: the personnel director, the branch manager and the regional sales manager. They told her to go home, not to go back to the office. She felt humiliated and victimized, and she sued. Can you blame her?
At the moment of termination, people naturally tend to think the very worst:
When people feel that the future is bleak, that it is going to be discouraging, disappointing or painful, they often want to blame someone for their bad luck. And that someone is generally you, their former employer.
One way outplacement prevents lawsuits is by keeping people focused on a positive, productive future, a future that is better than the pastor at least equally as good. How is this accomplished? I think my approach is fairly typical.
In the first meeting with a client, I let them express their surprise and uncertainty and vent their anger. I let them know I've been through this beforethey're in good handsand that the outcome will be positive. I don't promise anything specific, but I do lead them to believe I know what I'm talking about. When people feel assured by an expert, they relax. Their mind stops creating fearful pictures of the future, and they feel more at ease. This keeps them from taking a serious psychological fall.
In counseling I let clients express their feelings, but I don't let them dwell on too many of the bad things that might happen. I point out that equally good things could happen also.
Early on, I encourage participants to express negative feelings about the company:
One of my favorite tactics is to draw a bell-shaped curve on a piece of paper and then explain that things run in cycles. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jobs do too. They start out exciting and challenging and then gradually begin to plateau. At some point, they take a downward turn and deteriorate.
I ask my clients to plot themselves on this curve. Very often they point to the far end of the downhill side. That tells them something. For one thing, it tells them they haven't been as happy as they thought. That really, truthfully, they haven't liked their jobs very much. They have over-stayed their welcome, often by several years. They have let themselves get into a negative growth situation and haven't contributed much. Once people see this, they begin to understand why they were moved out of the organization.
Since this is a self-analysis, they accept it easily. I then ask why they stayed so long if they weren't happy. They often reply that they wanted to leave the organization years ago, but didn't know how. They were afraid to leave. They didn't know where to go. Many times, they have stayed because of inertia, not because of commitment, and this becomes painfully obvious.
We analyze their situation and I try to help them see they weren't fully alert. Usually they ignored some obvious signs and signals. They did not read the handwriting on the wall. Often, they were not paying attention to their own inner signals. They weren't listening to their guts.
By ignoring very real warning signs, by hoping things would "just go away," they hid from the truth. They ignored reality and waited for the ax to falland it did.
It's usually possible to determine exactly what went wrong. Sometimes the fatal mistake occurred years earlier during the job interview when the candidate didn't like the prospective boss but took the job anyway.
I try to show clients that they are partly responsible for what happened. I don't want them to beat themselves up, but I do want them to be mad enough at themselves so they never allow this sort of thing to happen again. If I can get them to see their part in the situation, I can defuse their anger toward the company.
There are cases, though, where the employee was productive and really was victimized by the organization. This is a much more difficult case because it is less understandable and less fair, and unfairness tends to provoke extreme anger. Several of my clients have been so seriously harmed by their companies that they should have filed suit. I felt for them, but it was my job to protect the company, and I did.
I never tell clients, "Don't sue the company." But, I do reason with them. I suggest that we can spend our time in more productive ways. I talk about the negative consequences of suing. For one thing, it turns off other employers. I listen and sympathize a great deal. I let them talk about the issue from all angles. It often takes weeks for them to drain off all their bitter feelings.
Then I talk to them about career responsibilityabout the fact that no one owes us anything. The truth is that we can't expect anyone to take care of us. We have to take care of ourselves.
Part of the role of outplacement is to help discharged executives separate out all their confusing, contradictory feelings. They are sad, angry, and afraid, all at the same time. I have to help them see what they're really sad about, what they're really afraid of, and what they're honestly angry about. Once these feelings are separated, they begin to get some clarity.
When I asked Bernie Siebert, an attorney in the Denver office of Sherman & Howard, why employees sue their former companies, he said, "If you're 25 or 35 years old, you can bounce back and find something else if you're diligent. That's not the case with older workers. You can pass all the legislation you want. The fact is employers are generally reluctant to hire people over 55."
"Those fired in their 50's often haven't planned well for retirement," Siebert said. "They are angry at having been terminated and frustrated when they can't find another job. The combination of those two leads to litigation. It's basic economic pressure."
Consider the 12-part challenge these job-seekers face:
There are hundreds of very helpful job-search books for sale, but separated executives are often too demoralized and too isolated to put this advice into practice. They need a coach, just like pro teams with complicated playbooks need a coach. Someone to help prioritize, to motivate, to assess progress, to set goals. Outplacement is the coach for the terminated executive. It expands a client's repertoire of "plays," and keeps their mind focused on winning the game rather than on seeking revenge.
Outplacement is a Win/Win strategy for both management and departing employees, because outplacement:
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