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Relocation counselling - good business, good human relations.

Jim Hanson had all the -right stuff.- At 29, a chartered accountant with an M.B.A. and senior auditor in his company, Hanson's star was rising in the organization. His wife, Evelyn, was expecting their first child and they planned to move into a new home in a month. All visible signals pointed to a classic happily-ever-after future. Then the axe dropped.

In an effort to save money through deep cost cutting, many staff functions were centralized in the company's U.S. home base. The resulting shakeup left waves of casualties in its wake. Hanson was one; his unborn child was another. The same day he was terminated, his wife discovered she had miscarried.

In today's harsh organizational climate of economic restraint and personnel cutbacks, no job can be considered -safe- anymore. For almost two decades, though, companies like Jim Hanson's have helped terminated employees land on their feet by providing relocation counselling as part of the severance settlement.

In 1970, the Aluminum Company of Canada engaged the Technical Service Council to coach managers whom it was laying off in job-hunting skills. Alcan reasoned that its former employees would find jobs more quickly if they had access to secretarial services and an interested consultant who would advise, encourage, coax and cajole them during the arduous job hunt. The remaining employees would feel less apprehensive about their jobs, and less critical about the company.

At the time, the idea of a firm paying for such relocation counselling (also called "outplacement") was as novel as a snowmobile in the Sahara. The pioneering experiment was so successful that it was written up in the Harvard Business Review.

Today, an estimated 30% of executives and professionals who are laid off receive such assistance. Their companies understand that for some very compelling reasons, it's not only good human relations, it's also good business:

1. The growth of wrongful dismissal suits has been a major factor in the acceptance of relocation counselling. Providing a counselling service reduces the risk of such costly law suits: people who are motivated to work hard at job hunting have less time to dwell on past injustices, real or imagined. Not only that, relocation counselling also reduces the average time to find a job by 20%. So even if the former employer is sued, the period of unemployment on which damages can be based is considerably reduced.

2. More often than not, terminated employees resent how they were dismissed more than the fact they were let go. Naturally, anger and a host of other lively emotions usually ride high. If the termination is badly handled and the person feels particularly hard done by, the organization can be vulnerable to sabotage.

In his anger, one manager (a member of management's labour negotiations team) threatened to disclose the company's entire bargaining strategy to the union. Other dismissed employees have been known to destroy records and change computer programs. Another firm lost a multi-million dollar sale because a fired executive disclosed confidential information to a prospective customer.

Relocation counselling helps protect the company against such vulnerability by defusing the person's anger and channeling that energy into a job search campaign.

3. Employers who make relocation counselling available to former employees also protect their public corporate image with customers, suppliers and even people who might want to work for the firm in the future.

In employees' eyes, counselling assistance expresses concrete concern for employees in the best way - helping them become re-employed in the shortest possible time.

Large layoffs have far-reaching social and community impacts, so some provinces require that the Department of Labour be notified of layoffs of more than 50 people. In a small community that should also include notifying the mayor, Members of Parliament and Canada Employment officials, as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

Beyond that, it is completely insensitive and dreadful public relations to fire someone when a spouse is in hospital, immediately before a vacation, on a birthday, or prior to entertaining important clients.

The agency providing your relocation counselling can help you plan and orchestrate the termination so as to minimize adverse publicity.

4. What serves to protect company interests in the community at large also preserves good employee relations with remaining staff. When practised consistently, provision of counselling communicates the organization's belief that people are an important resource; that such a resource is not simply discarded casually like a used kleenex, even in difficult circumstances or when there are sharp differences.

True, this doesn't ever stop people from wondering if or when they might be next. It does, however, go a long way toward cultivating a work environment where people are less likely to be critical of the company's actions. It also helps the employees who remain to concentrate on the job at hand knowing they won't be abandoned without a lifeboat.

5. No matter how gilded the axe or how deftly it's wielded, termination of employment is a stress-filled and traumatic event that affects the terminator as well as the terminee. Companies that provide the services of an outplacement counsellor provide much-needed support at a critical juncture for both the manager and the employee, albeit in different forms and toward different ends.

For managers, wielding the axe is often reported as one of the most unpleasant and emotionally draining managerial tasks they have to face. The manager experiences the counsellor's support in several forms: help in planning the termination, coaching in what to say, being there to meet the person immediately following, and in some cases retrieving company effects or even giving the person a ride home.

For the employee, the severance is even more stressful and its effects far-reaching. We North Americans invest so much of our personal identity in the status and satisfaction of our work. It's not surprising, then, that getting fired ranks among the top ten most stressful life events along with the death of a loved one and divorce.

One professional described her sense of displacement and anxiety as being like that of a trapeze artist who, having let go of one bar but not yet grabbed on to the next, looks down only to see a cement floor staring back rather than a safety net. The counselling process itself helps to manage that stress and develop an awareness of the safety net that actually is there.

Together, the employee and counsellor evaluate the financial, emotional and familial impacts of the dismissal. The counsellor's knowledge of the job market and how to be effective in it, coupled with active problem solving, caring and attentive listening, instills the sense of urgency and the positive mental attitude that is so essential for a successful job-search campaign.

6. Relocation counselling equips the former employee with job hunting skills that are of lifetime career value.

To those who have not faced the job search in a long time, its terrain is unfamiliar, its procedures uncharted. Today's job market is sophisticated and discerning - even a janitor may need a resume! Being forced into such a job market unprepared and without guidance can incite resentment toward the organization.

With a counsellor's help, however, the dismissed employee learns to inventory marketable skills and abilities along with likes and dislikes, to refocus career-life goals and to organize an effective marketing campaign for realizing those goals. These are skills and experiences that will serve the employee well in the face of any future terminations or periods of job-search before retirement.

Poorly planned and badly managed, an employment termination brings together potentially explosive elements. These can make the organization unnecessarily vulnerable and create undue distress for the dismissed employee. Careful planning, preparation and follow-through, however, can both protect the company's interests and open up new opportunities for the individual.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Koellner, Paul
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Jun 22, 1989
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