Last Updated: April 5, 2008: 10:01 AM EDT
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Confessions of a layoff coach

What's it like to be the expert a company brings in to help fired employees find their next jobs? Fortune's Anne Fisher talks to an outplacement counselor about his job, and his advice for out-of-work professionals.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- Like bankruptcy lawyers and repo agencies, outplacement firms thrive when the rest of the economy is sliding into the tank. Called in to help companies lay people off, and to offer career guidance aimed at easing the newly unemployed into their next jobs elsewhere, outplacement firms are pretty busy these days, especially in the financial services industry.

One of the biggest, DBM (www.dbm.com), has 200 offices in 85 countries and, at one time or another, has done outplacement and executive coaching for about 70% of the Fortune 500. Pedro Garcia, a coach in DBM's Miami office, came on board shortly before the 2001 recession and estimates that he has since counseled more than 1,000 of the laid off, restructured, and involuntarily retired. I recently spoke with him about his job. Some excerpts from our conversation:

Q. What kind of background does one need in order to become an outplacement counselor?

A. People come to it from different backgrounds -- corporate America, nonprofits, human resources.... I was at a nonprofit before this, and what brought me here was the chance to work with people at turning points, formative points, in their lives. The first step is meeting one-on-one with the [laid-off] person and listening to their goals. There is an art to this work. You have to be a really good listener.

Q. Do you encounter much hostility? Do people "shoot the messenger" and blame their job loss on you?

A. Yes, sometimes they do. The hostility is an initial reaction to the stress and fear of losing a job, and sometimes people will say, "Oh, you work for them..." -- meaning you are the agent of the company that has fired them.

But it doesn't usually last. Someone may need to sit and vent and cry for 15 minutes or so and then usually they pull themselves together and say, "Okay, I feel better now, I can concentrate on what you're saying." DBM offers a variety of coaching services that can really help someone find his or her next job, so once people start to focus on what is available to them, they start looking forward rather than back.

Part of my job is to help them do that -- to start right away to create an individual job-search strategy that will work for them. For example, someone may already be doing a lot of networking, but may need to update their resume so that it sells their skills in the most effective way. We would get right to work on that.

Q. What is the hardest part of being an outplacement counselor?

A. The hardest part is not having a magic wand that can instantly create the ideal job for each person. So I'm always trying to find ways to add value to their job search -- translating resumes from Spanish into English or vice versa, which here in Miami I often do, or just listening a little longer and making a few more suggestions, or giving someone a job lead, or talking with the spouse...

Q. Talking with the person's spouse is part of the process?

A. It can be, yes. When they understand that we are going to try to help them get their next job, employees' reaction is very often, "Wow, I didn't know this was available to me." The wife or husband or significant other often also needs to be educated about what we're doing, and it gives them a chance to share their worries.

A lot of times we have to advise them not to put too much pressure on the person who is in transition, to let the process unfold without voicing criticism or anxiety, which just makes it harder on the job hunter.

For example, let's say someone looking for a job makes five phone calls in a day. To the spouse that may not seem like much. He or she will say something like, "Oh, five phone calls...hmmm..." that implies the person isn't really trying. But making five calls a day - researching those calls first and preparing for each one and then calling and having those conversations -- is a full day's work. We try to help the spouses see that.

Q. What's your favorite part of the job?

A. Seeing the transformation of the individual. Often people will come to me who have been doing something for a long time and they will discount their own achievements -- "Oh, that was nothing, I just did that off the top of my head..." -- without seeing how to sell those accomplishments, without seeing the possibilities there. Then, when they do see, the light comes on. I love to have the opportunity to help someone make a change that will profoundly impact his or life. It's a privilege.

Q. Do you have any advice for someone who may be facing a layoff, on how to make the most of outplacement?

A. I would say two things. First, to get the most out of it, you have to be committed to the process. It's like buying a powerful computer with a lot of capabilities: You can just use it to send e-mail and type Word documents, or you can really make use of everything it can do. Outplacement is like that. Take advantage of all the different features and services that are offered.

And a related point would be, outplacement is more than just a resume-updating service. It's a chance to step back, take a deep breath, and take a careful look at your career -- to re-evaluate your goals in life. What do you really want to do next? Maybe it's time to move on to something completely different. This is your chance to find out.

Readers, have you been offered professional job-hunting help as part of a layoff? Just severance? Nothing at all? Does having a job coach help? Can it speed your job search? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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