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Do You Care Enough To Call?

Soliciting feedback is one easy way to confirm an outplacement-services vendor is delivering high-quality services to former employees, but to their detriment, not enough HR leaders are making the effort to learn what those affected think.

Thursday, February 20, 2014
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Most companies have core values that revolve around quality and employee satisfaction, but I've seen over the years how many miss an important opportunity to reflect those values in their approach to outplacement.

Organizations I work with offer professional-career-transition services to individuals leaving the organization (albeit some more systematically and consistently than others), and all seem confident enough of a good return on their investment to continue providing the benefit. What has surprised me more than anything is that only one of these organizations has indicated they have a proactive, internally-driven process to confirm their vendor is delivering high-quality services to former employees. And now, as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, many organizations have begun cutting back on outplacement services altogether.

This is not to say that the leaders in the other organizations don't care about quality. They do, but they do not take enough action to assure the quality they want. HR practitioners have a unique and important role in quality assurance – too bad not enough HR leaders are taking steps to address this. This role is particularly important now, when concerns about outplacement quality are on the rise in the HR community. The Great Recession forced companies to displace record numbers of employees (the U.S. economy lost 8.7 million jobs between 2008 and early 2010) and outplacement vendors saw record volume as a result. Many years of cost-driven procurement processes, combined with consolidation in the outplacement industry and pressure from Wall Street, have led the largest service providers to develop outplacement programs that rely heavily on technology platforms and classrooms for service delivery, and limit one-to-one interaction with a professional consultant/coach -- the most significant contributor to the cost structure. Even if a coach is technically available as stated in marketing materials, the alignment is often passive, or at worst actively cumbersome, for the individual participant to meaningfully access.

According to a 2009 study co-authored by The Institute for Corporate Productivity and the American Management Association, nearly 70 percent of companies offer professional outplacement services to exiting employees. For large enterprises with over 1,000 employees, that percentage increases to 85 percent. This study also revealed that "overall, companies don't wholeheartedly endorse their external outplacement service. Just 16 percent said the service is excellent, and about half (49 percent) find it very satisfactory. Thirty-two percent said it is just satisfactory."   

Employers invest significant capital in outplacement services for a host of reasons, chief among them the desire to ensure the former employee feels well supported in his or her transition, and the hope that the transition experience doesn't erode whatever brand loyalty the employee may have. Additionally, companies want former employees to continue to refer potential new employees, and to remain customers, and even shareholders, themselves. Finally, surviving employees communicate with departing employees, and with friends and close colleagues at other organizations. Bad experiences travel fast through the talent grapevine.

Many of the HR leaders I work with have heard informal, anecdotal testimony from former colleagues who felt "run through the mill" by their provider, or who experienced too little meaningful support beyond getting some help with their resumes to continue leveraging the benefit for the full duration of their programs. This feedback was a common experience for HR leaders on the heels of the recession, and has left many frustrated and dissatisfied with the state of the industry, and with a thirst for higher quality service to the company and the former employee.

Defining Quality in Career Transition Services

While skill level, experience, and market conditions are always factors, our experience over thousands of individual engagements suggests that aligning individual participants with a personal consultant/coach is the most effective path to a successful and speedy transition. The challenges many individuals face in a career transition cannot be addressed in the context of a public workshop or an online service; these are too generic and offer no chance for circumstantial alignment. Optimizing interview skills to a specific job opportunity, for example, or working through the emotional response to an involuntary separation, can best be accomplished with the private guidance of a skilled and trusted professional coach. Individuals are best served when employers and vendors invest the time to work together to build one-on-one components into all engagements, regardless of employee level.

The best way to measure the quality of a service is to solicit feedback directly from the individual recipient of that service. Lynn Gonzalez, CHRO at Seattle-based Zenith American Solutions, shared a list of questions the company uses in follow-up phone calls with former colleagues after they've taken advantage of outplacement services:

1.     How soon were you in contact with the outplacement counselor?

2.     How satisfied were you with this interaction? How would you rate the value of the conversation? (1-10 scale)

3.     Did you and the counselor decide on next steps that will be taken?

4.     What did you find most valuable about the outplacement process?

5.     What did you find least valuable?

6.     Do you have suggestions that would make the process better?

In my experience, HR professionals feel a certain reluctance to contact former employees about this issue. There are a variety of understandable reasons for this that could be explored in greater depth, but the level of spending on outplacement services in many organizations -- and the potential longer term costs to company reputation and talent acquisition of delivering low-value services  -- justify allocating some portion of time to initiate these kinds of insightful conversations.

Bureaucracy as Barrier

Unfortunately, corporate bureaucracies can interfere with efficient quality assurance efforts. For example, I reached out to a Fortune 1000 company a few years ago to relay stories from two employees impacted in a recent reduction in force. Each of them described in some detail their experience working with their outplacement provider. One individual rated the workshops she attended high, but expressed frustration about how difficult it was to connect in a timely fashion with the consultant assigned to her. The other person didn't fare as well, saying, "I felt like a number in a machine cog," and reflecting that overall "it was probably one of the most demoralizing experiences I could have had during the fragile time following the unexpected layoff." 

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I met with the HR leader who managed this program, who was genuinely disappointed that these two employees had such negative experiences with their vendor. I suggested random phone calls to 20 of the people impacted in the company's last RIF for a more representative sample. She agreed that was a good next step and expressed commitment to talk to her boss and recommend this approach. But then she asked, "Do you think we can rely on our current vendor to do this?" A little surprised by this, I said "No, I don't think you will get the whole story if you do."

I called three months later to learn what she had discovered, and she indicated priorities had shifted: she was not sure when this outreach would happen. I called three months after that, and she had left the organization. In another six months, I was able to pick up the conversation again with her boss' boss but now, two years later, they still have taken no action.

What HR Can Do

As a service provider, we track and report on a variety of metrics including "time to land," overall satisfaction and utilization/engagement rate, as well as qualitative reporting regarding progression through specified career-transition milestones. While these metrics have some value, none of them truly measure the quality of the experience individuals have with their program on their own. We have found the only way we can ensure quality is to conduct random quality-control calls to the individuals we are supporting. This approach to quality assurance helps us manage our business to drive better impact and results.

But I don't believe employers should simply take our word for it.

As an employer, if you aren't actually talking with a cross-section of your former employees about their outplacement experience, you can't truly appreciate or fully understand the ROI and impact of your investment in these services. And because you can't rely on vendor reporting alone, here are a few simple steps HR leaders can take immediately:

1.     Assign someone on your team to survey the last 20 separated employees that engaged with your outplacement provider.

2.     Have that person call each individual to solicit feedback regarding their overall experience with the service provider using the previously listed questions Zenith uses, or construct an online survey asking the same -- or similar -- questions.

3.     Document the feedback and discuss internally to see how it aligns with the experience you hope your former employees have during their transition, then make changes to the process, service level, or vendor alignment as indicated.

What's at stake is your brand and reputation as an employer. Relative to the money you spend on outplacement services, the time you spend conducting direct quality assessment is a simple and smart investment.

Kevin Osborne is vice president of client services for Seattle-based Waldron, a Career Partners International firm.

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