apparently (many) outplacement firms suck

Check out this Wall St. Journal article about how many outplacement firms suck. (Outplacement firms are hired by some companies doing lay-offs; they ostensibly help laid-off workers find new work, by helping with resumes and cover letters, coaching, etc.)  Unsurprisingly, it turns out that many of them offer lame boilerplate advice that isn’t helping anyone.

Some of the highlights from the article:

* At a mock lunch interview, one guy “was scolded for not following his coach to the restroom to continue the conversation. The other says he was chided for ordering diet soda because it suggested immaturity.” And one woman was chastised for ordering cranberry juice, because “it could be interpreted as a sign of a urinary-tract infection.”

* At least some of the cover letters they’re writing for people truly suck. One firm president who received application materials sent through an outplacement firm told the paper that “he eliminated both women from consideration as his executive assistant. ‘We didn’t take the letters seriously because they did not reflect an understanding of our company — and they looked alike,” he says.”

* Many/most/all (it’s not clear) of the firms don’t track how many of their clients actually find jobs. In other words, they don’t measure whether or not they’re actually meeting their most basic goal.

For some reason, the “we’ll help you get hired” industry is full of people who no clue what they’re talking about — maybe because anyone can read a couple of outdated job hunting guides from the 1980s and call themselves an expert. And it helps that their target audience is anxious and vulnerable.

But if you’re in the market for job search help, a good question to ask before you work with any coach or advisor is: How many people have you hired yourself?  I’d bet a lot of money that for most of the staff at these outplacement firms, the answer is zero.

You wouldn’t hire a mechanic who had never worked on a car before, and you shouldn’t hire a job coach who has never hired.

(In the interest of transparency, I want to note that I’ve done some webinars for RiseSmart, which is an outplacement firm.)

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Hannah

    I don’t think that the quantity of people a job coach has hired should be the deciding factor of whether or not you want to work with them. Of course they should have experience, but not TOO much experience. If they’re constantly hiring new people, that would suggest that they are not hiring quality long term employees. I wouldn’t want to conform to their idea of a good potential hire, because their hires obviously don’t stick around in their positions for too long.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Right, you don’t want someone who sucked at hiring. But you want someone who has hired more than a few people, because — like anything — people get better with experience. I know that I had no idea what I was doing when I first started hiring; experience is what makes you better.

      But yeah, you want someone who has been successful at hiring in a high-performing environment.

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  3. Julie

    “You wouldn’t hire a mechanic who had never worked on a car before, and you shouldn’t hire a job coach who has never hired.”

    I have nothing truly constructive to say, but I loved this quote.

  4. Anonymous

    While this post applies to outplacement firms, I think it can also be applied to some college centers too.

  5. Jane

    These companies work for those who lay people off, not for people looking for work, nor for companies trying to hire. Of course they are terrible – they have no incentive not to suck.

    The best use of them [for the people who being laid off] – use their space, internet connection, printers and paper goods. It maybe somewhat helpful to use their them to proofread your resume and/or cover letter, but get alternative advice as well. Steer clear from direct job-seeking advice, form letters, and offers to ‘submit’ your paperwork to potential employers.

    1. Anonymous

      These companies work for those who lay people off, not for people looking for work, nor for companies trying to hire. Of course they are terrible – they have no incentive not to suck.

      And all the outplacement firms have to do is make the people doing the laying-off feel as if they are helping the recently laid-off. Something along the lines of “one doesn’t ask the priest what happens to the fattened calf after the ceremony.”

  6. Anonymous

    It seems unfair that he eliminated them from consideration simply because their cover letters were similar. I suppose if he had an abundance of apps it’s an easy way to weed them out but dang, maybe he didn’t know it was the company’s fault the cover letters sucked and not the applicants’.

    1. bob

      Reread the quote: “We didn’t take the letters seriously because they did not reflect an understanding of our company”

    2. anonymous J

      What Bob said, but also, that’s how the hiring process works: The person in charge of screening candidates goes on first impressions, usually. The first impression was not a good one, so he passed.

      Not fair, but that’s reality. I would have been PISSED if I was Ms. Service!

  7. Anonymous

    I was once an admin at an outplacement firm. Can’t speak to the quality of the actual coaching, although a lot of the clients at least seemed to appreciate having someone to talk to who would be supportive. But we did do more than proofread resumes, etc.

    For one thing, a lot of the clients at that time had no experience searching online, and had shaky computer skills (constant refrain: “My assistant always did this for me…”). So we’d help them with basic Microsoft Word skills, teach them how to search online, things like that. I didn’t really like the job, for a number of reasons, but it did seem like a lot of the clients found the service helpful.

    So I think the main point is, weigh the advice you’re given carefully, and make sure you understand the full range of services you’re being offered. And like a previous poster said, don’t be shy about using their space, computers, printers, etc. Those things are there to be used.

  8. Naama

    It’s possible for a job coach who has never hired to be actually competent. Just not common. But there are ways to get a good head on your shoulders about hiring processes–talking to lots of employers, reading AAM religiously, sitting in on hiring decisions, sticking to one industry that you already know well, even recruiting volunteers. Of course an ideal job coach would have done many or all of these things PLUS hiring. Just saying — hiring is not absolutely, positively the only way to get that kind of perspective.

  9. Christine

    How about career coaches or placement firms that you as a potential employee hire? I had something happen with a “recruiter” who basically lied that they were a recruiter. They called me and I asked them point blank on the phone because the conversation seemed odd (TRUST your gut!). I went for an interview and found out they were a “career coach” firm but wouldn’t tell me their cost structure, the services they would provide me, and their success rate in placement of clients. Huge red flags, especially the last one. Never even gave me feedback on my resume or what they would do regarding assistance in cover letter/resume. Needless to say, 2 hrs wasted (not including driving time). But at least I received some interview practice, right? :)

  10. Nate

    Career centers in universities aren’t up to snuff either. I remember going to get my resume looked at some years back and the advice I got was mostly generic. She basically made cosmetic recommendations about my resume. She didn’t ask any probing questions or offer insight – it was basically, “well this is wrong, and you should get rid of this and that…”.

  11. xxxx

    Outplace services is found and paid by companies who rightsized people. The question goes back to the companies’ motivation. Are they doing it to really help the rightsized employees? Are they doing it so they can say they are doing something (costs of PR). If it is really to help the “to be” ex-employees, then how do they go about choosing the outplace services companies to help?

  12. youngmanafraidofthunder

    Much of the criticism directed at outplacement services from the point of view of the terminated employee is well deserved. If I were to suggest the source of the inadequacies cited, I would draw from my own experience of nearly 10 years in the industry, the high rate of attrition of intelligent, circumspect, and experienced outplacement workers.

    I can only describe the outplacement firm that I worked with, but the parameters of the job of outplacement counselor are horrible. No company subsidized benefits, extensive travel using your own credit and abusive treatment in the handling of personnel by the organization that asks this level of staff to “care” for terminated client employees while abusing their own. That is what I experienced and one of a handful of reasons why I choose not to work for any outplacement organization.

    Also, the net effect of these working conditions are that quality workers will often depart the industry for better opportunities.

    The key to understanding this industry? Follow the money. Regardless of the doublespeak about concern for those impacted by terminations (a term the industry discourages the use of), the outplacement firm is paid by the terminating organization and consequently the business transaction is about the organization’s interests NOT any individual employee or the employees considered collectively.

    The services provided are NOT completely worthless and any critic who levels such an allegation has lost a sense of balance to their outlook. As with many things in life, there is good and bad in everything. It is our work to discern the difference and work with the good.

    It is however my point of view that if the lion’s share of the benefit of outplacement services did not lay with the terminating employer, outplacement services would not be offered to terminated employees.

    All of the benefits for the employer that were stated in the NYT article were accurate and collectively captured with the term, “cooling out employees”. That said, if an employee already possesses insight into career transitions and can take compensation in lieu of outplacement, the best advice would be, “show me the money” and pass on the dubious, uneven benefits of outplacement.

  13. Anonymous

    Outplacement firms, Recruiters, and Hiring Managers have become a complete joke.

    I have been following jobs on job boards for 8 weeks now, and I know 3 people who have masters degrees, meet all the requirements, and have a salary within the range of the posting.

    No followup callbacks from recruiters!!! Correct me if I’m wrong, if you are a recruiter, your job is to find talented candidates, because, after all, isn’t that how you make money? So instead of having to search for candidates, if one comes to you with the exact skillset you need, wouldn’t you want to cherish that relationship?

    How are things so bad, that recruiters don’t even follow up on people that could increase their business? That’s like a used car salesman turning away from a person who finds them in the parking lot and says, “I want to buy this car”.

    I laugh when reports come out about companies who cannot find talent. I’ve seen companies take 10 weeks to make one offer to a person, and then not follow up with a confirmation, and then that candidate gets an interview, offer, and job within a few days from antoher firm, and the original company acts confused when this happens.

    I speak for many when I say the world of outplacement firms, recruiting firms, and hiring managers has turned into the Twilight Zone, where up is down and down is up. It’s no wonder so many businesses are getting flushed down the toilet. There are many skilled people out there that can help drive the business, but corporate inefficiency is killing that real quick.

  14. Anonymous

    The author is a former (or current) employee/consultant with RiseSmart, claiming that ‘there is hope’ with that outplacement firm. RiseSmart may have built a different mouse trap, but many industry professionals are doubtful that it’s a better one. Industry buzz has it that several of RiseSmart’s clients are switching away from them because they’ve not lived up to their claims. The mechanic analogy is amusing. Perhaps one might apply it to RiseSamrt. Its CEO Sanjay Sathe has neither HR experience nor a career coaching background, and he has no public evidence of pre-existing outplacement services expertise.

    Is the author is using this post as a clever ploy to promote RiseSmart as a better approach to outplacement services?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes, I’ve done some consulting work for Risesmart, as I said up front in the post. When I originally published this post, I didn’t include that last paragraph mentioning them at all (I added it later after thinking about my experience with them), so no, writing about this WSJ article wasn’t intended as a ploy to promote anyone. (And if anything, writing this post would be likely to jeopardize my relationship with them, not enhance it.)

      But I do think that anyone who offers my advice to their job-seekers — instead of telling them not to order cranberry juice at an interview lunch, or any of the other BS described in the article — is doing something right.

  15. Gabby

    I am currently using an outplacement firm that was provided free of charge by my employer when they laid me off. I went to a one day one-on-one session that I did find useful. There were some useful tips about how to behave during an interview and at lunch that I hadn’t thought of before. There were also some very sales-like tactics that I didn’t think fit my personality or that of those that I network with (ask to meet for coffee for 15-minutes because you need advice on a situation you recently encountered (being laid off)). There were some good resources on their website (the Hoover database, e.g.), but overall, you have to dig through a lot of rubbish to find anything worth value. You have to take everything they say with a grain of salt and in the end use your judgment as to whether it is appropriate for you or not. I’m not sure how this is appropriate for a company that charges for its expertise on this subject matter. An example – when they rewrote my resume, under the “Personal Information” section, they wrote “Married, likes volunteering.” That seems right out of the 1950’s! There were other suggestions that I did end-up using. Coaching sessions are similar – in the 30 minutes I spend with my coach, I get about 2 minutes of useful information. She takes notes on what I say I am going to do and then follows up on whether I did them or not, but other than that she has no memory of my situation or even what industry I’m in, so there is no way her advice is “personalized.”

  16. Nicole

    I love blogs because the advice endures. Almost 2 years later and a search led me to this page. I was laid off after 2 months on a new job. A job I initially declined but was assured I was the perfect person for the job. Too bad they had no clue what the job entailed. My skill set was the exact opposite of what was required of the position and I told them this. It was shortly after that they told me it wasn’t working out. Although I had wanted to explore other positions within the company and even told them that. I was honest with them and they completely blindsided me and never gave me a reason for termination. I asked for a written reason 3 times to no avail.

    In any case they offered to keep me on payroll throughout the month and outplacement services. The HR director joked that I was getting a great deal to remain on payroll, not have to report to work and get 30 days of outplacement services; then recounted a lame story about how 15 years ago during a layoff 80% of employees found jobs through this firm. What a joke of a man with a 1980s mentality. They offered me severance because they knew they were wrong for pulling a bait and switch! I was only days out from becoming a full time employee due to my 90 day intro period. Keeping me on payroll though allowed me to get paid for accumulated leave. I negotiated the placement service too and asked to be paid out for the value of this service. I’m in my 30s, Internet savvy, connected through various social and professional networks so 30 days of outplacement right in the middle of the holidays when no one is even working is pointless.

    Luckily for me, my connections worked in my favor. A job I turned down to accept this one offered me part time consulting work after I reached out to them the same day if my termination and part time immediately turned into full time. One door closes, another one opens. Guess I should thank them for lining the pockets of my savings account! :)

  17. Liam

    The issue with outplacement firms is that they sell the idea that they can get you into any career when it is just not happening for anyone. It took me 6 months with an outplacement firm since redundancy to sus that out, which is brutally inefficient. Particularly with technical roles, even if the job you want is only mildly different from your last one, when it comes to showing your CV to a line manager it is likely to be rejected. Even when doing it through connections it doesn’t work.

    I can here the generalisms people are thinking “oh but there’s lots of competition out there now” but I can assure you that is not the case having, in a previous role, rejected entire lots of candidates and not hiring for an advertised position internally or externally. You see the extra demands from employers are there because if you don’t match them you can’t do the job. The way employment works is that employers have a need for someone to do a job and need to sell that idea to their boss with the right person.

    How this relates to outplacement is that these firms do not understand people’s lines of work well enough and at times offer strategies more relevant to X-factor competitions or roles like secretarial jobs. They don’t understand the intricacies of the market at all – e.g. Shortages in sectors like IT are not being filled by career transitioners. Outplacement firms are also full of HR twats that will cold read you while not offering genuine help. The reason most people use these firms is usually as finding a job that suits them and matches their experience is difficult as their last job was a mistake whereas many of the guys in outplacement firms spout out nonsense about putting the right search terms in jobs sites etc

    The proper way is to have the right connections for your line of work, but most outplacement firms have none, at best more HR muppets that won’t understand your CV. Especially with career transition this is critical as only 10% of your network will even understand your new choice and, even when doing same thing again often you’ll run into issues without strong contacts.

  18. Liam

    I think, to add to that one of the issues people are missing about the current market is that most employers don’t have the money to retrain people, so career transition is out of the question. Certaintly at my outplacement firm the HR types are highly resistant to suggestions that this is the way the market works and will instead try and sell the idea that barriers to entry for any market are only in the mind. Be very wary of this, particularly if you try career teanaitions which involve specialised work (e.g. IT) and/or sectors with no transferable skills like banking.

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