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No Longer Stigmatized by the U Word, Laid-Off Workers Get a Chance

Some clever recruiters have landed quality employees through partnerships with downsizing firms.

November 6, 2003
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Related Topics: Downsizing, Candidate Sourcing
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For Jeanette Loomis, the layoff came as a complete shock. She had worked at J.C. Penney’s collections office in Portland, Oregon, for 23 years and had planned to stay there until she retired. Recalling the day in 2001 when she learned that her division, which had been purchased in 1999 by GE was history, Loomis says that she had no idea what she was going to do. "It was devastating and very emotional."

    This was a familiar story that year, a time when 21,345 employees were laid off throughout the country and 2,496,784 people filed for unemployment insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor--a 30-year high. The challenge of looking for work in a slow economy was seemingly compounded by the stigma of being unemployed. In the past, recruiters have been dubious about unemployed applicants, but the sheer volume of layoffs in the last three years has changed their attitude. No longer are unemployed candidates shuffled to the bottom of the résumé pile. Instead, they get fair and sometimes preferential treatment from clever recruiters who recognize the untapped riches that a layoff can produce.

    Thanks to the aggressive efforts of GE to help place its dislocated workers and this new interest in unemployed applicants, Loomis and several of her peers landed comfortably in jobs at U.S. Bank with little time between paychecks. The Bank regularly partners with organizations going through changes as part of its recruiting and community-involvement strategies, says Deeann Neri, senior vice president of employment and employee relations for U.S. Bancorp, the parent company of U.S. Bank, in Minneapolis. "We try to reach out to people and help them land on their feet," she says, which includes inviting organizations to send résumés of exiting employees and giving immediate consideration to laid-off workers.

    When U.S. Bank heard about the GE closing, it participated in an employment open house with two other local organizations specifically designed to help the displaced employees find work. The open house not only allowed them to conduct mass interviews with candidates, but also gave recruiters the opportunity to meet with their managers and supervisors, says Melissa Parker, a U.S. Bank recruiter in Portland. "We got a great feel for their experience and morale." GE also made a point of briefing employees on U.S. Bank’s culture, corporate structure and potential positions so that they were prepared to ask knowledgeable questions during interviews.

    U.S. Bank ultimately hired more than 20 former GE employees for its collections department, including Loomis as a supervisor. "Some of the top people in our group came from GE," Parker says. "They had great collections experience and have been a high-caliber group of employees."

    Because so many people were hired from that office, they came in as a working team ready to take on their jobs with little training or support. They already had years of collection experience in a similar atmosphere, which allowed them to reach their goals more quickly and operate efficiently with the rest of the group. "We knew what we were doing," Loomis says. "It was a smooth transition."

Times have changed
    Loomis and her colleagues are an excellent example of how some recruiters are taking advantage of layoffs. They find qualified, motivated candidates who can start sooner and cost less to recruit because there’s no need to advertise. The candidates also may require less training.


"There are so many mergers, consolidations and acquisitions in every industry that a lot of good people are getting laid off."


    Of course, that wasn’t always the case. In the late 1990s, when unemployment was at its lowest, unemployed people were not graciously welcomed by recruiters, says Reesa Staten, vice president of corporate communications for Robert Half International Inc., a staffing services firm in Menlo Park, California. Layoffs weren’t widespread, and it was often difficult to determine why a person wasn’t working. "Today, companies are a lot more forgiving of a gap in employment."

    Neri admits that she used to be more skeptical of applicants who were out of work, but says that in the last few years, her reaction has definitely changed. "There are so many mergers, consolidations and acquisitions in every industry that a lot of good people are getting laid off."

    That sentiment is supported across industries, especially in cities like Grand Rapids, where several major companies, including furniture giants Herman Miller Inc. and Steelcase, have gone through a rash of well-publicized downsizings and closings. For Kawasaki Motor Corp. USA, the downsizing of these companies presented opportunities to bolster their own ranks, says Ron Judge, regional human resources supervisor. "It created an excellent pool of candidates who were ready to work right away." He has hired nine people in the last two months from companies going through layoffs, including three customer-service reps who had the exact job experience he was looking for. "They were like plug-in-and-play employees," he says. "They came from a different industry, but they were doing the same types of dealer support that we do here." As a result, the new employees required less training and shorter ramp-up time before they were settled and successful in their positions at Kawasaki, he says, noting that he chose those people over working candidates who applied. "Just because someone is employed doesn’t mean they are better qualified," Judge says.

    People who are unemployed agree that the attitude has changed. Kristin Van Haitsma, a former data processor for Herman Miller who spent 10 months unemployed as a result of a major layoff, says that she received more empathy than criticism. "When I went into interviews and told recruiters where I had worked, the response was immediate," she says. "The looks on their faces said, ‘Oh, she’s one of those.’ It was instant sympathy."

    Haitsma eventually was hired as an assistant in the art department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, thanks in great part to Herman Miller’s Career Transition Center, a program the company ran for 15 months to help find jobs for its displaced workers. The center offered classes, résumé building, job boards and support groups to help employees manage their job search and keep them positive about the process. "They kept tabs on all of us," Haitsma says. "[We were] like a dysfunctional family."

    Along with offering emotional support and job-search strategies, these centers exist as a formal place where recruiters from other organizations can go to find candidates without incurring the cost of advertising, says Susan Blair, the center’s manager. She partnered with placement firms, listed job openings and generated a lot of publicity for the center to ensure that the community was aware of it. The center typically had at least 30 positions posted, even in the worst market, thanks to its high profile in the community. More than half of the 500 displaced employees who participated in the program found new jobs in less than a year.

    The one place where suspicion still lingers around the word unemployed is sales. There’s still an attitude of "Keep your best, get rid of the rest," even in a layoff, says Tim Costigan, client focus manager at Unisys, who works in information technology services at the company’s Minneapolis facility. Costigan was laid off in 2001 but quickly found work in his field. Many of his peers weren’t as fortunate. In the technology boom, companies boosted their sales teams and there were more customers, he says. "Since the economy fizzled, fewer organizations are investing in technology. A lot of mediocre salespeople were let go and they are still out there." To get a sales job in the IT industry today, you still need two things: verifiable proof of your ability to close deals and references, Costigan says. "Your track record will speak for itself."

Workforce Management, November 2003, pp. 81-83 -- Subscribe Now!

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