The Evolution of Outplacement Firms

June 28, 2014 by Raymond Lee

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 A 2009 article titled “Outplacement Firms Struggle to Do Job” appearing in The Wall Street Journal painted outplacement firms with a dark stroke, criticizing it as a service that can appear impersonal with or disconnected from the very people it purports to help. If outplacement firms had an Achilles’ heel it would be the time it can take the job seeker to get personal attention from the coach—maintaining regular communication is a fragile effort. Neither brick and- mortar nor virtual offerings are immune to this kind of participant disapproval. Perhaps this is why attrition rates can be quite high among certain outplacement programs.


There’s a dirty little secret in outplacement that few buyers know: large outplacement firms, at peak times, will assign over one-hundred participants to a single coach. Perhaps there’s a defense for this type of decision-making, but it’s perplexing to imagine how such loading could possibly benefit the communication process between the coach and the participant. Virtual outplacement can be at-risk for high participant-to-coach ratios too simply because it is an easily scalable model. This is precisely why buyers need to be aware of how accessible the coaches are in an online/phone/email setting. A small ratio of participants to a single coach is desirable and keeps the communication availability high throughout the program’s length. It also minimizes the wait times for responses and feedback between parties. In turn, tight communication increases the likelihood that the learner will remain engaged in a more sustained manner and potentially find new opportunities faster.

Auxiliary to sustained communication in a virtual outplacement program is the reliability of the email system. The email tool should be a private, secure system that is separate from the learner’s personal email account (e.g. Gmail, Yahoo, AOL). The reason for this is simple: conventional, all-purpose email accounts are subject to spam and junk mail filtering often beyond the end-user’s control. That means time sensitive attachments and communications can be lost in transit, and thereby lengthen the wait-time for a response. Long wait times can compromise a program’s effectiveness, leading to disengagement and even accessibility. Program structure, content, engagement, and communication are all factors a buyer should consider carefully. Neither large outplacement firms like Right Management and Lee Hecht Harrison nor small consultancies offer a robust set of features and functions in these respective categories. They tend to take a more self-service position on the nature of virtual outplacement. As a result, the candidate of self-directed services risks ending up with a lackluster experience. There’s also the risk of the participant losing interest with the resources. Information in a self-guided environment tends to be loosely structured, remiss of clear outcomes, and limited in its ability to provide lasting social learning opportunities.

Many outplacement firms would likely take issue with these assertions. Yet, it’s hard to defend virtual outplacement programs that are little more than glossy websites with articles, templates, and presentations for the learner to download and digest. It’s simply misleading to claim that a resource library is an adequate substitution for what one would experience in an intensive, high-touch brick and mortar setting.

Even if coaching occurs in conjunction with a self-service virtual model there’s a built-in disconnect between how the learner should utilize the online resources alongside phone- or email-based coaching. In other words, there’s scant evidence in self-service programs of tight integration that compel the participant to engage in a sustained manner.

So, what’s the solution? Is there a way to recreate the benefits of face-to-face in a virtual environment? This is where the evolution of outplacement firms really takes shape. Much of the potential in virtual outplacement resides in its power to construct a positive teaching-learning environment that functions more like a course of study as opposed to a collection of static resources. A virtual outplacement model draws on principles of e-learning blended with a support system of coaches and peers. The advantages go well beyond the mere convenience factor for participants. Creating a virtual outplacement environment requires a thoughtful balance of how people and technology interact. Designers of such models are keenly aware of how a learner needs to move through a career transition curriculum. This involves accessibility, a highly structured program, stimulating content, engagement/support, and reliable communication.

The very nature of virtual outplacement presupposes that there is a deliberate intent on the provider’s part to recreate—or simulate—the strengths of a face to-face environment. Put another way, a virtual outplacement service harbors the best of what traditional brick-and-mortar outplacement can achieve but in a manner that is significantly less dependent on time and space.

The benefits of virtual outplacement for an organization can be seen through two lenses. One, the advantages from the sponsoring company’s point of view; two, the benefits from the participant’s point of view which have a direct impact on the organization’s overall risk protection. Research your current provider to determine if they are keeping up with the evolution of outplacement firms.

Raymond Lee

Raymond Lee

Raymond Lee is the President of Careerminds, a global outplacement company based in Wilmington, Delaware. He has over 20 years of human resource, outplacement, and career consulting experience. He has his bachelor’s in psychology and holds a Master’s Degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Louisiana Tech University. He is active in SHRM and ATD. Raymond’s been featured on SiriusXM Business Radio, CareerTalk, and the Wall Street Journal and he’s published a book titled, Clocking Out: A Stress-Free Guide to Career Transitions.

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