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PAUL HENG, SINGAPORE - Tue, Oct 03, Business Times

"PAUL, please do not introduce your job search candidates to us, they are tainted goods". These words came through an e-mail from a Hong Kong- based headhunter that works with a top tier international search firm about 18 years ago.

I had written to him to introduce the profile of a job search client of mine whose most recent employer had made his job redundant. By the way, there were no financial obligations involved then - it was simply my way of helping my clients in their efforts to find their next employer.

It has been almost two decades since I was inducted to the world of outplacement support. A Western concept, outplacement is a company-paid benefit that extends beyond what an employer is legally obliged to do when an employee's services are terminated.

The two key objectives of an outplacement programme are to provide retrenched employees the emotional support and the practical assistance on job search related activities, such as how to write a professional resume.

Back then, retrenchment did take place, but it was not as frequent as what it is today. Those that got retrenched were perceived to have under-performed or had some deficiencies. This, however, is true in the minority.

Wider acceptance of outplacement support

Fast forward to present day, the provision of company-sponsored outplacement support is still not a legal employer obligation in some countries - it is something that a responsible employer will provide to help their ex-employees cope with job loss and move on with their lives.

As retrenchment occurs more frequently, it has also become more prevalent for employers to provide outplacement support. Those that do are aware that the care and support they provide to departing employees are important considerations as they will eventually need to hire again.

Not treating these soon-to-be-ex-employees professionally could have serious repercussions - people talk, and with many social-media active people, word will definitely get around. And the hard work that goes into being an employer of choice might just go down the drain, just because a couple of retrenched workers shared their feelings publicly.

The converse holds true - a retrenchment exercise well planned and executed will be recognised by ex-employees and also, importantly, gives the remaining employees a positive impression that they are working with a responsible management.

Changing perceptions

Twenty years ago, the frequent media request - "do you have a client that we can interview and profile?" - that accompanies an article that I've penned always gets a negative response. I did not even bother to ask, as no one would want to be profiled in the media for the wrong reasons - and being retrenched was one of them. This has changed.

In a recent focus group discussion consisting of job seekers who have lost their jobs involuntarily, a high percentage of those present had no qualms of accepting a media interview. In fact, a few ventured further saying that the exposure will also serve to highlight their profile to potential hiring managers.

Many headhunters now welcome the introduction of job search candidates - they see it as another avenue of getting to know more talent in the marketplace. The same goes for hiring managers whom we engaged with in our efforts to market our candidates. Retrenchment has become more common and a fact of working life.

The retrenched person still cries, and the "Why me?" question is still asked. The stigma, however, is no longer a key consideration for hiring managers.

What else has changed in the outplacement industry?

The bulk of corporate clients remain multi-nationals and the larger locally-listed conglomerates. SME owners are increasingly more curious and open to exploring the use of professional help to support retrenched employees as the line separating "nice-to-have" and "must-have" blurs.

Like many other industries, the use of technology has become more prevalent. In some parts of the world, outplacement firms provide the option of a 'faceless-programme' - one where the client does not have a career consultant or coach to work with in-person, and interactions are conducted virtually.

Outplacement firms are increasingly also jumping onto the artificial intelligence (AI) bandwagon by laying claim to being able to use data analytics to support their clients' job search efforts, such as being able to find job postings wherever they are in the public domain, or to provide a diagnostic analysis of the job seeker's personality and values that allows sharper job matching.

Job loss clients are definitely more knowledgeable and savvy - meeting their constantly evolving expectations, of course, is a must.

It would be of limited help to them if outplacement consultants were to tell them that they can impart the skills of writing a nice resume or how to sell themselves to an interviewer although jobseekers who have "over-stayed" at their most recent employers would always welcome a template to begin constructing their professional resume, or receive one-to-one coaching on effective interviewing techniques.

These clients would expect their consultants to also share with them how to network, on LinkedIn, in person, and even to introduce them to their network of contacts. Networking is an activity that many people still do not practice, or worse, do not understand why they must network.

In addition to job search support, clients would also want to learn how to start managing, or better manage their careers, maintain employability, re-invent their career and how to go about planning for their 'after-corporate' life.

In many firms, the responsibility of sourcing for an outplacement vendor has moved from HR to the Procurement folks. So then, it largely becomes a pricing issue - the main objective of procurement is to get the most attractive quote - best price for the best product.

This is sad news for our industry as it is a rather unique one where the quality and track record of the consultant or coach should be key factors to consider. Of course, pricing will be a perennial consideration, but it should never be the main one.

The future (next three years)

What keeps outplacement business owners up at night? It is probably the same as what other business owners are thinking about - how do we continually innovate and remain relevant?

The use of technology will continue to prevail; this must, however, be delicately balanced by the human touch. Yielding the best investment outcome for the fees we are paid by questioning what more we can do to support displaced employees, and help our corporate clients to preserve their reputation as a premium employer.

Another consideration is how we can continue to grow our list of SME-clients who are more price sensitive, by incorporating a more comprehensive list of HR-related solutions.

Last, but not least, we need to think about how we can move away from a single product line to an offering of related product & services - in short, to be that one-stop shop for our clients.

  • The writer is the founder/MD and an executive coach of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia
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