Making American business ``lean and mean'' by laying off managers usually elicits a ``bravo,'' says Tim Lynch of Drake Beam Morin Inc., an ``outplacement'' consulting firm based in New York. ``But when you're on the level that is being cut,'' Mr. Lynch says, ``it's a completely different story.''
As many as 1 in 16 managers -- more than 600,000 -- will be fired during the next year, according to some estimates.
But unlike the old days, when the dreaded pink slip meant the individual was suddenly left to fend for himself, most big corporations are hiring consultants to help employees through the ordeal and into new jobs.
Richard Jandl of MacKenna, Jandl & Associates of Lynnfield, Mass., estimates that 95 percent of the Fortune 500 companies use outplacement counselors.
``Corporations like us, because usually the people they send to us find work before the severance runs out and that saves them money,'' Mr. Jandl says.
Twenty years ago, when Jandl started helping people who found themselves out of work, he was virtually alone in his profession. But he turned out to be on the cutting edge of a new consulting field that has grown rapidly.
The first directory of Consultants News in 1980 contained 43 outplacement companies, with revenues of $25 million. By 1984 there were 111 firms, with revenues of $125 million.
The company doing the firing generally pays the counselor a fee equal to roughly 15 percent of the fired employee's total compensation including bonuses.
Outplacement firms become ``the office in exile'' for the unemployed worker, providing support and counseling to start looking for a job.
``One of the first things we tell a client to do is nothing,'' says Mr. Lynch of Drake Beam Morin, which was established in 1967. ``A lot of people panic when they lose a job and feel they have to call all their contacts so they can be employed by next Tuesday.''
That, says Lynch, can be ``devastating, because that's not the time people want to hear from you, and even if you are successful, you might end up in the wrong job and back on the streets in three months.''
Most counselors believe that the unemployed must let a period of three or four weeks pass before starting a systematic job hunt. During this period, outplacement firms provide counseling, if needed, to deal with the hurt, anger, and frustration of being fired.
The systematic job hunt generally begins with a self-assessment of a person's skills, accomplishments, current economic status, and career goals. Only then can the person start thinking about job interviews.
``Eighty-five percent of people underestimate their worth,'' Lynch says. ``A lot of people find that self-assessment is the most important benefit of the entire job-hunting process.
``Most people spend more time planning a vacation than their career,'' he notes. ``But when they have to spend eight hours a day on their career, it gets them to look at their accomplishments, and that's both therapeutic and valuable in a job search.''
Once the job hunt itself begins, the outplacement firm provides support services for the client. Drake Beam Morin gives office space and secretarial help, with counselors to review the job hunter's weekly action plan. Most experts stress the impossibility of setting deadlines to get a job, but they emphasize the importance of a full-time, 40-hour-a-week search.
Jandl believes people using the support and guidance of outplacement firms will find work in half the time their unassisted counterparts will take. The average job search takes three to six months, with the length of time increasing the further up the organizational chart you go.
``I liken what we do to preseason football,'' Jandl says. ``The coach/counselor is very evident in the early stages, but when the season starts the players have to do it themselves.'' Jandl notes that the average worker will be in the same job only 3.8 years, ``so the person interviewing you will probably have been unemployed himself.''
Many companies are also using outplacement firms to help counter the demoralizing effect that firings have on workers who stay.
``When a company undergoes major organizational change, a lot of negative stuff goes on,'' says M. Colette Nies at William M. Mercer-Meidinger Inc. in Chicago. She says businesses must help employees ``understand the business reasons for the decisions being made.''
Indeed, many problems arise in mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations when top officials fail to communicate decisions effectively.
Perceptions, often aided by rumors, grow that layoffs are directed at individuals and not part of an overall plan. Employees become even more isolated when they don't have any open channels of communications to top officials.
``What executives have to understand is that their people are their company,'' Ms. Nies says. ``You can call it `inplacement' counseling, but you have to be sure that the people still with you know what you expect from them and that their knowledge will make a difference.''