One Man’s Journey Through the Forced March of Outplacement
As a parting gift, after being released from a job I loved, I was told I would receive outplacement services. Outplacement, indeed! What could that possibly be but an organized wailing wall? Though it didn’t sound promising, I didn’t say no. How foolish not to at least sample it. So I went where directed.
From the first, looking around at everyone else similarly accorded, I had but one thought: We are the walking dead. Day after day, it seemed, we peopled the halls like invisible men, staring down at the floor when we passed. We vied for office space in the morning, arriving to grab the window slots, even though the view was of an empty office tower and, winter or summer, the cubicles were usually airless and cold.
We settled in quickly, forcing ourselves to focus on drafting messages filled with the buzz words and euphemisms each of us used to transmit our aspirations in positive ways—and layer effectively over one essential truth: We’ve been fired.
Within a few days I was assigned a counselor who dissected my résumé and shook his head. It didn’t scan. What? He ran his thumb along the left-hand margin where he said important bold-face words should appear. Then with pencil in hand he fussed as he searched for active verbs and clever ways to interrupt the blocks of copy that encapsulated my career. Then he passed the résumé back to me, and like a diligent schoolboy I tried to make sense of his jottings.
Back and forth the document traveled, until it pleased the man and I begin to comprehend the tedious process. It wasn’t just the résumé that was being reconstituted; it was me, my outlook, my perception of myself as a professional.
Termination had been a shock but no real surprise. For weeks I had endured a sickly cordial relationship with my new superior. We said, “Good morning,” “Have a good lunch” and “Did you have a nice weekend?” to each other until I felt entirely drained of bromides. And in the course of two full months I never once saw his initials on any proposal I’d drafted, or received a response to any query I’d placed on his desk.
I’d come to feel totally disengaged and almost paranoically useless. When he finally confronted me with the news that my position had been eliminated and I was to vacate my office, I felt—in addition to a predictable flash of terror—something akin to relief. He was the one who assured me that part of my settlement included outplacement. That’s how I got to that Madison Avenue high-rise peopled with long faces.
After a week of becoming acclimated, of learning to pack up at the end of the day and unpack the following morning, of learning which coffeepot yielded a palatable brew, which staff members were good for a good-morning smile, I began to settle in to a kind of routine. And I stopped looking down.
The others seemed willing to make eye contact if I did, and they willingly chatted. Women among us were in the minority. However, they readily vented their feelings about having been sacked and seemed to have no difficulty communicating among themselves—or with anyone, for that matter. It was the men who habitually held back. Most of us were silent and stoic, trying to conceal the fact that each of us felt wounded, damaged, irredeemably flawed.
Over the months, outplacement proved not to be the sick joke I’d expected. Although no panacea for any of us, it did at least provide structure. It gave us a reason to get up and out in the morning, a place to come to, a launch pad for thrusting ahead.
Seeing one another on the phone, at our laptops or in the library digging through job directories, created stimulus. It underscored the fact that the business of finding work in a post-recession economy was a challenge to the spirit and to all our reserves of energy and resilience.
When in close quarters at the coffee urn or in the john, we’d routine ask each other “How’s it going?” What we really meant was, “How are you faring under that pall that hangs over us all?”
Our responses were neither clinical nor detailed; few of us wanted to unburden ourselves to people facing similar perils. Also, as we were men, we tended to be contained. But we did begin to recognize each other’s good and bad days: mornings when the phone rang with call-backs and long afternoons of silence and inertia when our resources seemed tapped out.
Although schooled to be competitive, we ultimately found ourselves collegial. For many of us, cheering each other on was like reliving high school or the military. We felt ourselves loosen up, become less guarded, less taut. We supported each other by our presence, by the fact that each setback one of us received was matched by what another of us had just endured. We bolstered each other, sharing our contacts and networking tips as reflections of our individual worth.
More than half of us, statistically, would never be employed again in the industries that had nurtured us. We longed to adapt our skills to new areas of interest, even to other professions, but were unsure precisely how. We said reassuring things when a colleague had been rejected. We were a fraternity.
New arrivals invariably aroused our empathy. We remained alert to the shock and revulsion they felt when dropped in among us, and sensed the roiling anger they were too buttoned up to release. We also recognized the fantasy they harbored—that they would land something quickly, in defiance of statistics warning even the most scrupulously ambitious job-seeker that it might take a year or more to be “placed.”
When I overheard one counselor quietly informing another of a pending “pickup,” I knew that within the hour another newcomer would join us, his face pale, his eyes darting about in confusion. My thin door was shut, but I could hear the new arrival being shown to an office.
I met him the next morning. He was in jeans and work shoes, garb he probably wouldn’t wear very often, for it signaled “no interviews today.” We all learned to look perennially prepared. A last-minute meeting was always possible, as was lunch and some assertive networking with an employed friend with an expense account.
Although we might loosen our neckties and occasionally unbutton our collars, most of us felt better in executive-length socks and sensible ties. Dressed for success, or at least for achievement, we gave each other hope.
Leo, a lawyer who had been abruptly fired at the very moment he’d expected a hefty raise, proved the most sociable. He glad-handed us all, women as well as men, and engaged us in shallow banter. As he settled in, it was clear that he faced the same uphill battles we’d all been waging, though he seemed unfazed by any of them.
Late on a summer Friday, when the phones were dead and no further business would likely occur, he held court in the corridor. His voice was raucous, his laugh a searing cackle. One might as well open the door and join the exchange; Leo made it impossible to stay focused on anything serious.
We leaned against the walls and door jambs and, like conscriptees, complained among ourselves about the facilities, about the lack of attention we felt we deserved but rarely got, about the seeming ineptness and indifference of much of the facility’s staff. “Hey,” said Leo, alluding at last to his own state of mind, “if it weren’t for you guys…” His voice cracked; he couldn’t complete the sentence.
There was an awkward silence, a few more chuckles, then one by one we returned to our cramped spaces. The fact that Leo was a vulnerable, feeling person, as much prone to despair as any of us, finally sunk in and we didn’t know how to deal with it. We would adjust, however; we knew we had to. Leo would be among us, scratching at the periphery of job placement, for long months to come.
“Let me hear from you,” I heard him tell a man who was packing well-thumbed paperbacks and a stack of file folders into a worn carton. “The offer” had finally come through, and though it was not all he hoped for, he had accepted it. He had dispatched emails to all of his networked contacts and now was departing.
Several of us exchanged business cards with him, vowing to stay in touch. In this we were like handmaidens to a myth, for we knew that once any of us left, a door would click shut behind us and we wouldn’t look back. Whatever offer we accepted would be like a breath of new life— or a resuscitation of the spirit that we truly couldn’t share.
Outside on the street, we’d find ourselves glancing away or looking down when we spotted a former outplacement colleague still out of work. It wasn’t lack of concern that we felt now but loss of identification. It was a concomitant of our passage—from being cast out to becoming “placed.”
Simply stated, we were no longer the walking dead.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons