News & Politics » Miscellany

You're Fired

So what do you do now? Sit down and listen to the advice of a few "outplacement" specialists.

by

comment

Michael Wynne leans forward on the sofa in his office high atop the Civic Opera Building and looks you straight in the eye when he talks to you. He's the kind of fellow you trust from the moment you shake hands with him; he's got a spark in his eye, a salesman's smile, and the kind of deep, confident voice that gets actors work as television doctors. So when he tells you how to go out and sell yourself to a prospective employer, you believe him.

"All your life," he begins, "you've been taught: don't overstate your situation, don't brag, don't speak about yourself, be modest. Yet when you're looking for a job, how on earth is anybody supposed to find out about you unless you do that? And the problem is, people have great reluctance in telling about their accomplishments. If I come to you looking for a job, you can look at my resume, and all it is, really, is a list of places I've been, and some of the titles I've held. That's nice. But if you're going to hire me, it's because you have some very definite needs and problems in your organization and you need somebody who can make a difference. And the only way you can tell whether I'm going to make that difference is if I tell you about my accomplishments. You shouldn't have to work to find out about my product."

But how do you go about that? you ask. Wynne senses your squeamishness, and he's heard the question before. "I could say: 'Let me tell you some of the things I've done that may be interesting to you.' Better still: 'Let me tell you what I liked about that specific product.' People respond well to that. Then: 'Let me tell you what I learned from that.' People will lean forward to hear that."

Wynne, 55, is a vice president and consultant for Jannotta, Bray & Associates, an outplacement firm with offices in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Outplacement is a process catering primarily to corporate executives who for one reason or another have been discharged. It's generally part of a severance package, paid for by the discharging corporation, and it costs, in the case of Jannotta, Bray, 15 percent as much as the salary you made on dismissal. As with most outplacement firms, you cannot walk in off the street and apply for services. You have to be sent by your company. And if the company does not offer outplacement, negotiate. You may feel too shocked to negotiate at the time of dismissal, but that's really the best time: chances are the boss is plenty uncomfortable -- he may even be feeling guilty and concerned about repercussions, legal and otherwise.

Outplacement doesn't find a job for you -- Jannotta, Bray isn't a search firm or job-placement agency -- instead it helps you put the pieces back together, then teaches you to market that most difficult of products: yourself. Though one Jannotta, Bray program deals with plant closings -- after the 1985 closing of the Stroh Company's Detroit brewery, for example, the company helped almost 600 blue-collar and 130 white-collar employees find new jobs -- most of the firm's business is in executive outplacement. In 1986 Jannotta, Bray counseled more than 400 clients, most of them senior executives from Fortune 500 companies with an average age of 45 and an average salary, among the Chicago-office clients, over $100,000.

Jannotta, Bray, as one personnel executive described it, is "the Cadillac of outplacement." The Jannotta, Bray counselors, or consultants as they prefer to call themselves, have all been senior executives and are of approximately the same age as their clients: Joseph E. Jannotta, the company founder, was a vice president at Jewel and is part owner of the French Baker, a restaurant chain; Bud Bray, his partner, was a VP for Wells Fargo; Mike Wynne was a general manager for various U.S. and overseas operations of Mobil Oil; and so on. There are 23 full-time consultants in all; their corporate experience and their graying (or balding) heads assure their clients they're among contemporaries.

Your outplacement begins with a very thorough assessment that includes work and family histories and psychological tests. The consultants interview your former coworkers, explain how to make contacts, and teach you how to make the most of interviews. They nudge you through the aggravating and often demeaning task of landing not just a job, but the right job, and then help you negotiate a compensation package.

But first you have to get over the trauma of losing a job. You have no excuses and no apologies, but you do have scars. You weren't particularly comfortable with the job of late, but you couldn't find your own way out of it either. Still, when the ax fell, your confidence was taken out from under you. You were angry. You went home stunned and hurt, and the discussion with your wife over your uncertain future degenerated quickly into an argument. You can't remember what the argument was about, but you vividly remember a plate of meat loaf and mashed potatoes arcing across the dining room and landing facedown on the kitchen floor. You called your father, who 12 years earlier, after 19 years with one company, after working his way up to vice president of the corporation and president of a subsidiary, was summarily fired to make way for a younger man. "You go home and have a good cry," he told you, "and then you get to work finding a new job."

Nowadays, it's common, sometimes even recommended, to change jobs every five years or so. Your father is in his sixties. A man of his generation got out of the service, finished college, and then got his job. If he kept his nose clean and to the grindstone, the company took care of him. "You worked for one company and it was assumed you were going to retire with that company," says Joe Jannotta. Joe is in his fifties, with a shock of gray hair, a pair of half glasses down the bridge of his nose, an easy manner, and a voice with just a touch of a scrape to it. If you looked in the dictionary for the term "corporate executive," you might expect to find Joe Jannotta's picture there. "There was a sort of unwritten contract between the employee and the employer," he continues, "that existed in the 50s and 60s and even the 70s. And for reasons of survival, companies have had to change those cultures."

Industry in Illinois is changing as well, away from manufacturing and toward service and retailing. According to statistics compiled by the Illinois Department of Employment Security, by 1995 white-collar jobs will have increased by 17.3 percent over 1982, more than twice the expected increase of blue-collar jobs. Many of those white-collar jobs will be for technicians in health, engineering, and science; many more will be for administrative-support and clerical workers. The fastest growing white-collar job market will be for marketing and sales workers, half of them retail salespeople and cashiers. The majority of managerial and management-support jobs will be for accountants and auditors, purchasing agents and buyers, and food service/lodging managers. The most telling statistic of all, perhaps, is that of the annual 14,882 job openings for managers and administrators in the Chicago area, only 3,285 will be due to industrial growth; the remaining 11,597 will be due to separations -- quittings and firings. Many of the firings are "no-fault" firings, the result of plant closings, mergers, downsizing (where whole levels are pared away in an attempt to streamline), or corporate restructurings designed to help a company survive. "We see very few executives in here who were fired for incompetence," says Jannotta. Faultlessness doesn't make it any easier: you've gotten up five days a week for 10 or 20 years, grabbed your briefcase, and gone to work. Suddenly, your life's structure has been pulled out from under you, and if you're like many other executives, the lack of structure is absolutely paralyzing. "The real problem when leaving a company you've been with a long time," as one fired executive explained, "is that you're used to doing a lot of things that you don't do anymore, particularly if you've worked 60-plus-hour weeks for years and years. All of a sudden you don't have lunch with a lot of stimulating people every day." You don't socialize with them anymore. And since you've never looked for a job before, you haven't a notion of where to begin. You go rapidly through several emotional changes, starting with disbelief, followed perhaps by a period of trying to negotiate a way back into the company, to somehow patch things up. When the truth sinks in, there's hurt, depression, anger, and only then a realization that something has to be done.

First stop, the unemployment office. You put on your old clothes, buy a newspaper to pass the time and hide your eyes behind, and head off for the ordeal. You arrive at the unemployment office, a low, windowless (humorless) brick building, at 8:30 sharp, and already the line has formed outside the door. When the guard signals that business hours have begun, you shuffle inside and inch slowly toward the first caseworker. After a half hour's wait, you reach the front of the line, fill out a few forms, and get sent to a chair. You wait another hour, maybe two, as one by one the people ahead of you in line are called to the counter. You try not to listen as their misfortunes are discussed aloud, hoping that those behind you will not listen when it's your turn. When you reach the counter at last, you explain to a caseworker who makes $19,000 a year that until recently, you made $85,000, and you have a year's severance pay, plus benefits. Tough luck, fellow. He makes you an appointment two weeks hence with an adjudicator (who will decide if you deserve unemployment compensation) and sends you off to job service to wait in line again. Another hour passes and they take you into a group and explain to you how to find a job -- how to walk up and down the street and go into every factory and every retail store and ask, "Say, do you have a job for me?" You know the answer.

Rita lost her job as a human resources executive for a major Chicago conglomerate. She made $97,000 a year and received bonuses that catapulted her income well into six figures, and so when she reached that first unemployment-office counter, her caseworker said, "Do you know that you make the most money of anyone I've ever had before?" A petite woman of 45 with short, blond hair, she got her MBA and reentered the job market after her children were in school. She rose quickly through the ranks and within 12 years was a vice president of a large east-coast corporation, then uprooted her family to take the Chicago job. Six months later the Chicago company was embroiled in a hostile takeover. "The first day the new management came in I had a new boss and new responsibilities that took me out of the human resource side and into the administration side. It didn't make any sense and I told them so. Within three weeks they would discover that my position was redundant." The corporation had put together a separation package, including outplacement, for employees disenchanted with the takeover. Rather than wait to get pushed out the door, Rita jumped. She landed at Jannotta, Bray.

Your first instinct is to pick up the phone; the counselors at Jannotta, Bray will tell you not to. You're still so stunned you could take the first job offer that comes along regardless of whether it's the right one. You've got a big scarlet D for "discharge" on your forehead. You're ready to go out begging with your hat in your hand, full of stories of why you're bad or the company's bad. You've gone through months of corporate hell, and it shows on your face and in your attitude. You need time to reflect and to begin to think about what you've done and what you want to do next.

The assessment will bring that home. You sit with a consultant and literally tell him your life story. "That's important," says Mike Wynne, "because when you go out looking for a job, you'll be telling your story to people over and over again." All kinds of things need to be taken into account: your family -- can they be relocated? Your net worth -- can you afford to go into business for yourself? Will your severance package cover you for the length of the search? You spend time with one of the Jannotta, Bray psychologists, who administers tests and interviews you again. The consultants interview five or six of your coworkers -- peers, bosses, subordinates -- to contrast how you perceive yourself with how others see you. Then in an hour-and-a-half feedback session, they serve it all back to you. The intention is to determine your mental functioning and administrative and communicative skills, your leadership abilities, how you respond to pressure, your areas of special expertise, your strengths and weaknesses and how they could affect positions you might take. Are you people-energizing? Well, it would be a mistake to work for yourself. Do you need a positive work environment? You're not a turn-around man.

More important, the assessment allows you to reclaim your self-worth, to discover that in spite of the scarlet D, you still have skills and expertise and good qualities that will serve you well at your next job. As Joe Jannotta explains, "The higher you go in a company, the less feedback you get. And when you're terminated, suddenly you're wondering what's been happening. You begin to have big self-doubts. It's helpful for us to come and confirm things for you. It's a relief for you to say, 'Yes, that's the way I really am.'"

You sit through seminars on starting your own business or on consulting, if you think those are viable options. Very few jobs come out of the want ads. "Most executive jobs are never advertised," says Mike Wynne, "they are created during an interview." You need to start networking: You make out a list of 100 friends and acquaintances and call them, tell them you're looking for a job, find out what they know, then follow up on the contacts they provide for you. You write letters to search firms. You make another list of 15 to 20 companies you think you'd like to work for, log some time in the library to find the names of the key players, the CEO perhaps, if you're in top management, the VPs if you're in middle management, and then you write to them -- taking care never to contact someone whose position you may threaten! Over the course of your networking, you find out who knows whom at those target companies. You ask former bosses to write letters of introduction for you. You make phone calls, as many in a day as you can.

Rita learned early on to keep logs of her calls and letters, after a prospective employer returned her call and she had to ask who he was. "I have three drawers of letters: one of letters to search firms, one of thank-yous to contacts I visited, and I've written directly to some CEOs. I've probably visited 130 people. And the phone calls . . ." She found one CEO who had no job openings, but still set aside regular hours to have coffee with people looking for jobs. She was told outright by a search firm that since she was a woman, she should expect to be offered substantially less money than she had been making. She left an interview on a cloud after being told how perfect she was for a job, only to find the next day that the interviewer, in fact, thought otherwise. When I last spoke with her, she awaited three job offers, all of them for better jobs than the one she left. "You go on a high," she recounts, "and then it falls through. I've had some times where I don't want anyone to ask me what's the matter, because I'm afraid I just might tell them."

The Jannotta, Bray process came about because Joe Jannotta, after a long tenure as a personnel and human resources executive at Jewel, went through outplacement and found it lacking. Late in 1977, after surviving a few rounds of corporate reorganization, he left Jewel to help market the French yogurt Yoplait in the United States. After two years, he and his partners sold the business. The new owners, General Mills, didn't want Jannotta and offered him outplacement. Then Jewel asked him to come back as a consultant and set up a program to place 1,800 people displaced by the sale of a division. In 1978, with that experience under his belt, he went into the outplacement business.

Jannotta blames the term "outplacement" on James Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm with 14 offices in the United States and Europe. He in turn blames it on the Wall Street Journal. "We originally called it 'executive retrieval,'" he says, "but that implied that it was only for executives. I think 'dehiring' is the best word."

Challenger invented the industry almost 25 years ago as a means of "assuaging corporate guilt." Enlightened companies, he found, were willing to take responsibility for their mistakes. Think about it: You're hired into the wrong job. You're kept on because no one has the heart to get rid of you. You're bounced around different departments or sidestepped. When someone finally fires you, five years or more of your life and your career have been wasted because your superiors couldn't face up to facts. Outplacement is an attempt to right that wrong, and that is why companies are willing to pay an amount equal to 15 percent of your salary to help you out of the company.

Challenger's methods vary somewhat from Jannotta's. Instead of assessment, he asks you to write 50 to 100 pages about yourself; in part, it's to help you recover self-worth, but it also serves to keep you out of the market, and ultimately to give the consultant an idea of who you are. Challenger doesn't believe in talking to your former boss and coworkers. "We need to go to the market with the way they perceive themselves," he says, "not the way they were perceived at their old company." Challenger takes a simpler view of dismissal. You are fired, ultimately, because someone, whether it's your fault or not, doesn't like you. There's great truth to that; mergers, downsizings, and takeovers notwithstanding, if they like you, they'll make room for you. And he doesn't believe in complicating the process: "There is no magic about getting a job. You make calls and you have interviews. And if I can get a guy to see four people a day, he's going to get a job a lot sooner than a guy who sees one a week. And that's all there is, to get them out, to make sure they're seeing enough people, and make sure they're presenting it well."

More disagreement: "It's an enormously complex process," says Terry Taylor of Gleason Associates, a third Chicago outplacement firm. Gleason orchestrates letter-writing campaigns for executives, helps them position themselves in the market, and then markets them. He usually doesn't believe in psychological testing. Nor does Challenger. "All this testing and mumbo jumbo," he says. "That's amazing. You're still going to do what you did before."

Not necessarily, say the consultants at Jannotta, Bray, and that's where they differ most from their competition.

The Jannotta, Bray offices are laid out like an oak-trimmed beehive, without the wide-open spaces that might draw a curious eye toward you or any individual sitting in a cubicle or waiting area. There is no dentist-office, the-doctor-will-see-you-next feel that could add to your already peaking paranoia.

It's nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning. Seated around you at a laminated-wood conference table in a room just off the Jannotta, Bray entrance lobby are a half dozen gray-haired men in dark suits and white shirts. They have pens in their pockets. Their coats are hung over the backs of their chairs as they sip coffee from plastic cups and furiously study the seriously brown binders on the table before them. Enter Mike Wynne. He counts the bodies, notes that two are missing, and then jokes: "I never penalize the punctual for the tardy. This seminar is called 'Starting a Small Business' or 'Welcome to "You Bet Your Life."'" He's his usual confidence-inspiring self, and as he asks the participants to introduce themselves, you start to notice your fellows, those other wearers of the scarlet D, and their varying levels of sophistication and discomfort. One of them, you guess from his Ron Reagan hairstyle and rolled-up sleeves, came out of a plant job; another, from his big smile, good haircut, and well-coordinated suit and tie, was in sales and marketing. The ice is broken. You are no longer a gathering of outsiders, you are co-conspirators.

The binder before you holds outlines of the seminar, self-evaluation sheets for rating whether your personality, business sense, and bank account will do you well as an entrepreneur; pro-and-con balance sheets for different business options; and guides to setting up a business plan. You and your co-conspirators discuss them vigorously. Joe Jannotta is at the seminar, too, not in person, but on video in a slick question-and-answer interview. As the session ends, Wynne sends you home with instructions to draw up a sample business plan by your next meeting. After the session he confides to you that perhaps only one of the day's participants will succeed in getting a business off the ground. It's not you.

One who did, Bob, was a senior vice president at a major advertising agency, and he was one of the best media advertising experts in the country. At age 52, after 27 years with the agency, the only real job he had ever had, he was discharged. They restructured the company, and as he describes it, he "was just kind of there." He had been promoted past his specialty, from working with accounts into administration, which he likens to "being an accountant in a law firm. It's not where the action is." But he had been away from the action for seven years, too long to get back into it, and getting back into it would mean a serious step backward in salary. Besides, he was getting too old for the industry.

When he took the entrepreneurial seminar at Jannotta, Bray, he intended to move to an out-of-state resort area, buy a bed-and-breakfast guest house, and then run a retail and consulting business out of it with his wife. "Having reasonable business sense," he says, "I put plans together six ways from Sunday, but I couldn't make any economic sense out of them." Joe Jannotta referred him to people who had successfully established such businesses, showed him the flaws in his plans, and as Bob puts it, "confirmed what I figured." Bob ditched the plans for the bed-and-breakfast, kept those for retailing and consulting, and went at it. Today his business is doing well. And he proved that professionally, you don't have to continue doing what you have always done.

Larry, 55, followed a different route to prove the same thing. He had spent a long Navy career working with various federal government departments. When he retired from the Navy, he took a position with a Chicago corporation and held just about every senior management position the firm had to offer. At the end of 12 years, he found himself architect of a merger that he calls "a major business development that was larger than any one person and necessary for the future success of the company." But it changed the company beyond recognition, and though a place was carved out of the new organization for Larry, he no longer found his work gratifying. "Once the new organization was revealed," he says, "the clock started ticking in my head. It was just a matter of when, and I was forced to think about what I would do next." He decided to leave the company. They offered him a very generous package that included two years' salary (at more than $250,000 a year) and benefits, after which he could take early retirement; office space; secretarial support; some travel expenses; and outplacement at Jannotta, Bray.

Larry's assessment brought out that he had a tendency to intellectualize, that he was more of an idea man than an operating guy -- a less-than-favorable stereotype that had haunted him during his corporate tenure. Because he had enjoyed teaching the odd seminar over his business career, he decided to consider an academic career. Through his networking he met a fellow who had come out of a corporation to land a deanship at a southern university. The dean was subsequently courted for a similar position at another university and he recommended the university contact Larry. They reached agreement, and Larry had found his "proper final resting place," as one of his ex-colleagues called it.

The scarlet D is not indelible. The secret to erasing it lies in your interviewing skills, the tricks of the trade that Mike Wynne is patiently explaining to you. Interviews are disasters waiting to happen, because the personnel officer you speak to knows how to conduct an interview, but doesn't know the particulars of the job, while the job supervisor knows the job, but doesn't have the interviewing skills, or the time to cultivate them. You have been escorted to the supervisor's office. His secretary goes in and says, "Mr. Smith, your ten o'clock is here." He looks up alarmed, says, "Who? Where is his resume?" scans it for an instant, and beckons for his secretary to send you in. You shake hands and sit down, and then, because he has a half hour to fill, he asks you a meaningless question such as, "So, tell me all about yourself." You're in trouble.

"We tell our clients that somebody has to control the interview, and it's nicer when you do," says Wynne. "The other person may seem to have all the cards, but you have an agenda." First you have to determine the identity of the company. "People love to have their own words tossed back at them," says Wynne, so you should read the CEO's letter to the stockholders. Once you get past the apologies as to why the stockholders aren't reaping the profits they anticipated, you will find in it all the cliches the company uses to describe itself. If it says, "We are a young, dynamic company on the cutting edge of technology," then you have to say you want to work for a young, dynamic company on the cutting edge of technology. You can pick up quickly on the culture of a company by the language of its executives, by their aggressiveness and the way they carry themselves: the plant executives with their sleeves rolled up and their direct, what-the-hell-is-it-going-to-take tone of voice; the man in corporate headquarters, more conservatively dressed, accustomed to writing memos, choosing his words most carefully. Failure to pick up on a culture means you don't land the job. One Jannotta, Bray client had an offer nibbling at the hook when, in response to the CEO's remark that he had better like air travel, because he would be doing plenty, he answered, jokingly, that he did -- as long as it was first-class. "You could see the ice descend over his face," the client recalled later; the CEO had gone through frugal times in building his empire, and he didn't travel first-class himself, nor did he get the joke. That one got away.

How do you explain to your interviewer why you're out of a job? you ask. "It really doesn't matter what the reason was for leaving," says Wynne. "Most people just aren't interested. That's your hang-up." You work out a short, passionless response. "I'd go back tomorrow, but the job's just not there anymore." Or "I didn't see eye to eye with my boss -- and he is the boss." Done.

You ask about loaded questions. "What do you see as your greatest weakness?" is one that has always struck you as just as dumb as those lines on government applications that ask, "Are you a drug addict?" Who but a fellow high out of his mind would tell either. ("I'm a workaholic" suggests Rita in response to the weakness query.) Worse still is the question, "Could you tell me how you'd make this company better?"

"I'd be happy to," snaps Wynne, "but first let me ask you a question: What do you like most about the situation as it is now? Then: What do you like least? Now you know what to answer."

If the interview doesn't pan out, you go back to networking. Wynne recalls a fired bank vice president who told his family over the dinner table that he had to meet as many people as he possibly could, because there was no telling where a job would come from. His teenage son looked up from his tuna casserole and said, "Dad, I think you ought to meet my wrestling coach. He knows a lot of people." "Sure son," the father replied, putting him off.

Weeks later, with no prospects on the horizon, the son again suggested that the father meet his coach, and this time the father acquiesced out of parental patience. The coach's sister, it turned out, was married to the president of a local bank, and guess what? He had a job for the father.

You just don't know who the crucial contact will be. "Some people of whom you expect a certain amount of help will let you down," says Wynne. "We tell people not to hold it against them; you can't tell what the circumstances of their lives are at that point. And people you've never met before will knock themselves out for you. And don't even question why. They're just going to do it, and one day you're going to do the same for somebody else."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

Add a comment