Outplacement Services: The Nice Folks Who Do Hatchet Jobs with Kid Gloves: Psychologist Oliver's Firm Helps 'Candidates' Get It Together after the Fall
Marshall, Jeffrey, American Banker
NEW YORK -- Adela Oliver calls the man "McMullen," though that isn't his real name, and she tells his story to show how badly some personnel firings are handled.
As she recounts it, Mr. McMullen's boss wanted to fire him Dec. 24, and the boss telephoned Dr. Oliver, a psychologist and outplacement consultant here, to set up an exit interview for that date. Why that day, of all days? The boss told her, Scrooge-like, that his own Christmas would be ruined if he didn't terminate Mr. McMullen before heading home for his own holiday.
"I said I wouldn't do it," Dr. Oliver recalls. "I said it was a matter of professional ethics, that I wouldn't be a party to firing someone under those circumstances." She said she envisioned Mr. McMullen being distraught -- and perhaps suicidal -- at the prospect of having to tell his assembled family that his Christmas "gift" from his employer was a pink slip.
"I said to [the boss], 'If you've gone 20 years without firing him, can't you go another 20 days?'"
The boss reluctantly agreed, and she says he called her later to apologize and thank her for dissuading him from firing Mr. McMullen that day. He was fired -- three weeks later -- but under clearly different circumstances.
Dr. Oliver is one of the leading practitioners in the burgeoning field of outplacement services for corporations. The term "outplacement" itself is a polite euphemism, perhaps, for one of the most difficult areas -- and possibly the most sensitive one -- in the corporate world: handling the termination of employees and their subsequent placement, if desired, in a new job with another company.
President of her own midtown Manhattan firm, Oliver Human Resource Consultants Inc., Dr. Oliver heads a team of nine professional counselors offering a range of services to business clients. About 80% of her business is with financial services firms, she says.
Among her current clients: Chemical Bank, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, Coopers & Lybrand, BankWire, Time Inc., the New York Times Co. and its subsidiaries, Westinghouse Broadcasting & Cable Inc., and Philip Morris Inc. Previous clients include Citibank, Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co., and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
A self-confident woman of medium height with reddish-brown hair, Dr. Oliver insisted during a detailed interview that she doesn't locate jobs for her "candidates," as she calls the individuals with whom she works. (Companies are called "clients.") Instead, she says, she or one of her staff teaches the person how to market himself -- a process that involves formulation of a job-hunting plan and following it through.
All costs are picked up by the client company, and Dr. Oliver says her fees are set at an industry standard -- 15% of the total annual cash compensation for each individual helped. In other words, for handling an executive making $100,000 in cash compensation, Oliver would charge the client $15,000.
That number isn't far off the average. Dr. Oliver says that of the several hundred candidates she has handled, the average person is a senior-level executive, age 53, making $90,000 a year. Her firm does not work directly with unreferred individuals unless it is someone the firm has worked with previously; in that case, she says, the services are free.
"I have two sets of fees," she says with a smile. "Very high and free of charge."
Why would a company pay stiff fees to let a consultant deal with matters it could usually handle internally, though perhaps not so successfully? What sort of payoff is there?
Banks and other companies are reluctant to talk about their use of such services, given the sensitivity -- one request for information from a major money center bank went through three levels of approval, only to die at a fourth -- but a personnel executive at one big New York bank calls outplacement "a very useful and productive activity. …