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50 Ways to Say "You're Fired"

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According to its corporate literature, the company sponsoring today's lunch lecture is "designed to assist employers with employee termination issues and, after termination, to help separated employees develop skills and define career strategies to assist them in finding new employment."

"Separated employees"--fired people--are a $300,000,000-a-year industry. And Right Associates, an "outplacement" business, accounts for a substantial amount of the gross revenues, mollycoddling corporate firees while easing the consciences of the corporate firers.

Today, Right Associates has brought Carole Hyatt, author of Shifting Gears--How to Master Career Change and Find the Work That's Right for You, to Chicago to talk about her book. About 60 people are munching on a sumptuous buffet at the stuffy University Club downtown--people from Commonwealth Edison, Citicorp, American National Can, Ernst & Young, First Chicago, Continental Bank, Bell & Howell, Jenner & Block, Sara Lee, Quaker Oats, and Sears. People from companies that fire people. These people use words like "outplacement," "slimming down," "corporate leaning," "downsizing," and "demassing" instead of words like "fired," "canned," "laid off," "pink slipped," and "better find a new job."

For a fee (paid by the firing companies), outplacement companies like Right Associates provide separated employees with phones, offices, answering services, resume-making help, job-search help, self-help seminars, career counseling, word processing--anything, they say, dumped employees could ever want or need. And anything that will help create the illusion that they're still employed.

"We catch people at the worst time in life," John Gable, director of client services at Right Associates, tells me before Hyatt starts her talk. "Of course, some are glad it happens. They weren't happy anyway. We're a career transition service. We help with career shifts. If they needed psychotherapy, they would get it. We'd funnel them [to any services they'd need]. If there are chemistry problems, technical obsolescence problems with a former employee, we help with career counseling.ÉWhat doesn't fit one pistol may fit another."

Gable says 97 percent of "displaced" people eventually land positions at higher salaries. "Loyalty and Horatio Alger are dead. When it's time to move on, it's time to move on."

Hyatt, a New Yorker, tells the group the same thing. "For some people, being fired is the only way they can make change," she says. "When they have money and status, they hate the thought of being infantile again, of starting something, or somewhere, new."

So Hyatt gives some examples of people who had to make a career change--Polly Bergen, David Brown, Walter Cronkite, the woman who wrote Dirty Dancing. Exactly what jobs they were fired from remains a little unclear; the point, she says, is that they were much happier in their new jobs. Hyatt's last example is herself: After her partner died and her market research business folded, she spent a lot of time at home in her nightgown brooding. But something better came along--her new career as a social researcher, best-selling author, and worldwide lecturer. She says it was worth the wait.

As Hyatt wraps up her little pep talk, she proclaims outplacement "an opportunity to change history."

"A lot of times people fail because they're not fitting properly. With outplacement, it's so wonderful an opportunity to find the right fit."

This is exactly what the group wants to hear. The oncoming recession means they'll probably be sending some of their current employees off to find a better "fit."

Headhunter Andy Wojdula finishes his lunch and digests Hyatt's few minutes of wisdom on the up side of losing your job. He philosophizes on his role in the outplacement kingdom: "They know I know there are opportunities out there for [unemployed] people. I guess you could say I'm the light at the end of the tunnel."

Then he lets go of his silverware and files out of the dining room with the other corporate guests, who each take a complimentary copy of Hyatt's book and go back to work.

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