From Fired to Hired

CPAs who soon will be ex-employees can design a career-transition plan—with a little help.

OUTPLACEMENT IS A PROCESS in which businesses engage experts—typically outplacement organizations or individual consultants—to offer support, personal assessments and training to employees losing jobs to clarify their career preferences and identify their strengths. Depending on circumstances, the service may counsel either groups or individuals.

EXPERTS WHO GET EMPLOYEES FOCUSED on the future, rather than dwelling on the past, can go a long way toward minimizing potential lawsuits.

OUTPLACEMENT CONSISTS OF FIVE BASIC PHASES: orientation, assessment and evaluation, resume writing and the job interview, targeting the job market and building your network, and landing the job.

TO IDENTIFY THEIR STRENGTHS and weaknesses and possibly discover new career affinities, job seekers take aptitude and psychological tests. CPAs can use the assessment phase to explore ways to widen their horizons. Some decide to do something completely different.

OUTPLACEMENT CAN TEACH JOB SEEKERS how to focus on their career highlights to create a strong resume and a favorable impression at an interview. Critiques of videotaped mock interviews can provide helpful feedback.

IT'S BEGINNING TO TAKE LONGER to land a job than was the case a year ago. For individuals with salaries over the $100,000 level, it may take up to six months to get a new job, experts say. Shop carefully for an outplacement consultant.

JOHN LEWISON is director of human resources for a New York-based policy and research organization and is assistant professor of management, Graduate HRD Division, at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where he teaches courses in management. Until recently he was executive director of the New York State Society for Human Resource Management.

t doesn’t matter whether you call it a reduction in force, a layoff, a downsizing, a rightsizing or a reengineering. On the stress scale the loss of a job ranks third as one of life’s great traumas, just behind death and divorce. Today most employees lose jobs as a result of a merger, acquisition or economic slowdown rather than their performance, and almost no field or industry has escaped the dramatic increase in downsizing—including banks, financial institutions and CPA firms. American Express, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and PricewaterhouseCoopers all have announced the layoff of thousands of workers recently, and a major outplacement company says nearly half the individuals seeking its help have held positions in finance or accounting.

Alas, knowing they’re part of a trend and have plenty of company doesn’t ease employees’ sense of personal assault when an employer decides to say “so long.” If change becomes a fact of life because of a merger or business downturn, outplacement and career-management counseling can play a vital role in helping displaced CPAs and financial managers make a soft landing. It also can help move a stalled career forward.


Outplacement is a term coined more than 30 years ago by Tom Hubbard, founder of Thinc, a New York-based career-consultancy pioneer. It’s a process in which businesses engage experts—typically outplacement organizations or individual consultants—to offer support, personal assessments and job-skills and interviewing training to employees they’re letting go. “Today job searches—especially those of professionals such as lawyers and CPAs—are more complex,” and as a result “outplacement now includes total career management and coaching,” says John Quirk, a director at Spherion, which does workforce consulting.

National outplacement companies include Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Drake Beam Morin, Lee Hecht Harrison, Right Management Consultants and Spherion (see “Additional Resources,” page 46). At the other end of the spectrum are hundreds of small “boutiques” and individuals, some of whom are certified by the International Association of Career Management Professionals (IACMP) or the International Board of Career Management Certification (IBCMC).
Approximately 80% of U.S. employers now provide some kind of outplacement services to employees who need them.

Source: Drake Beam Morin, .

All of them charge a fee for their services. Larger companies typically are paid directly by the business that is laying off staff while smaller entities and individual consultants are paid by either the business or the individual needing career-management services.

Outplacement companies may administer assessment tests and personality profiles to help departing workers clarify their career preferences and identify their strengths. Depending on circumstances, the service may counsel either groups or individuals. Among their techniques are role-playing and critiques of videotaped mock employment interviews. In some cases, they invite experts to speak about job-search strategies and alternatives such as self-employment, and they teach the newly unemployed how to research opportunities and write a targeted resume. “We see ourselves as coaches,” says Jim Jonell of Careerlab in Englewood, Colorado. “You never send someone out on the playing field without a coach.”

As the service becomes more common, “smaller companies are providing outplacement these days,” says Patty Prosser of OI Partners, a New Jersey-based career-consulting firm. Last year, several companies with fewer than 50 employees retained Prosser’s firm to provide laid-off workers with resume tips, interview coaching, job referrals, occupational testing and other services. In contrast, “five years ago, it was predominantly the Fortune 500” that did this, Prosser says. Then, outplacement providers could charge anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 for help for a departing executive, but competition has brought the price down, making the service more accessible. Many companies of all sizes now foot the bill for outplacement for their departing workers—and consider it money well spent.

Paul Stelter, a vice-president and general manager of Texas-based career-advisory firm Thompson Consulting, says employers benefit, too. “When people leave an organization, most stay in the same industry or community. The way they are treated upon their departure has a bearing on future relationships,” he says. The last thing a company or firm needs or wants is a disgruntled former employee bad-mouthing it to potential clients and customers.

Averting litigation is another good reason to use outplacement, says Al Sniadecki, a former human resources professional who purchased such services for his Texas-based staffing business before losing his own job. He says the dollars a firm spends to help employees find new jobs are minimal when compared with the threat of an age-discrimination lawsuit by an angry manager. (Many downsized employees are in the 40–70 age range.) Although no outplacement service can guarantee that a displaced worker will not sue a firm, experts who get employees focused on the future, rather than dwelling on the past, can go a long way toward minimizing potential lawsuits. “A healthy transition for everybody means fewer lawsuits and less negative talk on the street,” Jonell says.

Don’t Get Mad,
Get Organized

When the economy convulses, no one is immune. “Losing your job is like a death in the family,” says Sandra Young, a partner in Women’s Focus, a career-counseling firm in Orange County, California. The silver lining is that a job setback can provide an opportunity for greater self-awareness. Here are some pointers on picking up the pieces:

Fight the feeling. “The first reactions when people are let go are anger, denial, bargaining and, more often than not, relief—since they finally know where they stand,” says Aaron Nierenberg, a New Brunswick, New Jersey, career consultant. After that, “resentments start surfacing.” Take 24 hours to think the process through before doing anything, advises Young.

There may be a strong temptation to wallow in your perceived victimhood, says Joan Oliver, a Drake Beam Morin vice-president, but “don’t prolong the pity party for more than three days.” Cool off during that initial period, she says, and “go through the want ads or search the Internet for jobs, but don’t make any phone calls to potential employers at that time.”

Talk to an attorney. If the company is not going out of business and you are being let go, don’t say or sign anything but do talk to an attorney. He or she may be able to negotiate an improved severance package, particularly if you’ve been with the company for a while.

Protect your family. Take steps to continue health coverage for the family, and child care if needed. A family therapist recommends that parents explain the loss of a job to children and take them into confidence as completely as possible without scaring them.

Sign up for unemployment. In addition, figure out how much vacation pay and other reimbursable “entitlements” the firm owes you.

Obtain references. If you don’t feel your current boss will recommend you well, ask someone else to write a reference on the company letterhead. Bear in mind that some companies may have a policy against this, however.

List all your resources. List your friends, relatives and business associates who might know of employment opportunities, Oliver says. List past jobs in chronological order (this is the basis of your resume). List on-the-job accomplishments, awards and organizations you are part of or might want to join.

“Look at all your assets,” suggests Jim Jonell of Careerlab. “Accountants look at other people’s assets all the time but have a hard time looking at their own.”

Activate your network. Because even the most well-crafted resume may never get read, the most important job-hunting skill is networking. (Consider: Fifty-six percent of polled executives say they spend five minutes or less reviewing each resume they receive for an advertised position.)

“One mistake accountants make is that they get so involved in their jobs, they lose their network,” Jonell says. Gather a contact list of about 40 e-mail addresses of clients, friends, former colleagues and people at firms you want to target, he recommends. The first piece of e-mail to send these contacts should include your resume. Then follow up with short, weekly e-mails reminding them you’re out there. The goal is to connect with people at firms you have targeted as potential employers and get an interview.

Exploit outplacement services. Up until a few years ago, “not many employers offered outplacement assistance to anyone other than senior-level executives, but now companies realize outplacement is a responsible way of dealing with layoffs,” says Paul McDonald of Robert Half. It’s to your advantage to use them.

Use the downtime wisely. Employers who offer such help typically make it a three- to six-month benefit, though how long it will take to find a job depends on variables such as your salary range, level within the organization and how willing you are to relocate or to change industries. “While you may not find a job in that time, you will have learned the skills to do so,” Oliver says.

Take interim work. Many job seekers benefit emotionally by doing temporary work. It helps financially, of course, but perhaps the most convincing argument for taking interim work is that it provides networking possibilities. In Job Hunting for Dummies, Max Messmer says, “Thirty-eight percent of temporary workers today have been offered full-time jobs at companies where they were on assignments.”

Look at other options. Losing your job might be incentive in disguise if you hated your job anyway, so try a different tack. “There’s more need for specialized services today in wealth management, financial planning and debt restructuring,” says McDonald of options available to a CPA.

Studies show that it could take several years to get back to a former salary level after losing some high-level jobs. Rather than retracing steps, job seekers should perhaps switch industries, he says.

—Carol Lippert Gray

Ms. Gray is a former managing editor of Financial Executive magazine. Her e-mail address is .


Outplacement companies and consultants help laid-off workers structure their transition using five basic steps. They are

Orientation . In the first stage, individuals receive coaching on career management and practical aspects of their immediate predicament. Depending on whether they are offered a budget package or a top-of-the-line one, they might get as little as a half-day seminar given by someone with human resources experience or as much as an unlimited series of individual counseling appointments with a certified practitioner. The objective is to help them come to terms with the emotional side of their job loss and examine the economic impact the event will have on their lifestyle and their family.

Gianni Cordazzo, a licensed financial planner, often assists CPAs and others with handling a concrete aspect of their transition: In such cases, he works with those first learning of their layoff to help them “put their financial house in order,” he says. CPAs are good at analyzing a business statement, but a “dispassionate third party” can advise newly laid-off practitioners about preparing a financial plan and reviewing their health and life insurance needs before conversion periods expire.

Assessment and evaluation. In the assessment phase, job seekers take aptitude and psychological tests to identify their strengths and weaknesses and possibly discover new career affinities. CPAs, who may feel pigeonholed, can use the assessment phase to explore ways to widen their horizons.

One of the most popular psychological tests used in business, industry and by many career-transition professionals is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It offers individuals a basis for evaluating work or work settings that may best suit them. MBTI measures characteristics such as degree of extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling and judging/perceiving. The results can help sort out which types of positions a financial professional in need of a job ought to consider.

Right Management managing principal Andrea Eisenberg encourages CPAs not to be myopic and to consider using skills that might qualify them for other roles such as manager of a purchasing department, for example. By profession, says Eisenberg, CPAs “live in a structured and sequential” world and often “feel awkward about their career change.” For them, the assessment phase is critically important, she says.

Resume writing and the job interview. The third phase of the outplacement process offers instruction in crafting a resume and preparing for networking and job interviews. Many CPAs don’t like to “sell” themselves, says Jim Borland, PhD, an adviser in private practice and former director of the Manhattan Five O’Clock Club (see “ The Club Scene ,”at the end of this article). This stage helps individuals develop their interviewing and social “contact” skills, he says.

A really good resume must show how job duties led to results and workplace improvements. That’s the key for potential employers, who don’t just want to know what an employee was responsible for but also what benefits they’ll get from the person they hire. Closing the company’s books might be an important job function for a CPA, but implementing new systems and procedures that enable the books to close four weeks faster is what really counts to a prospective employer, says Quirk.

How to Choose an Outplacement Service
Pay an on-site visit to the facility—does it offer individual workspaces and/ or offices or only small, open-access cubicles? Privacy is desirable.

If the outplacement company offers executive offices, is there enough administrative support? Who answers the phones and takes messages? Is voice mail available? What about e-mail and fax capability?

Is there a library for research, and if so, is it adequately set up with resource materials such as CD-ROM databases and Internet access?

Look at the program materials such as training classes and psychological assessments. Does the training appear adequate to teach ex-employees the self-marketing skills they need?

If the outplacement company offers only a seminar program (typically two to three days covering the basics), how large will each class be? Ask how the seminar is run.

Ask about the counselor or consultant workloads. Most experts believe that one internal counselor/ consultant can work with no more than 15 to 25 individuals at a time. If the workload is much greater than this ratio, it might be wise to look elsewhere.

Ask about the success rate of the office. You want to know both the percentage of individuals who land a new job and the average time it takes. Keep in mind the level of those looking for new positions: Higher salaried jobs take longer.

Research the overall quality and reputation of the outplacement company. Ask for references. Check with career-consulting organizations that certify outplacement professionals.

Source: Adapted from “Maximizing Your Outplacement ROI: How to Select the Best Service” by Kenneth M. Dawson and Sheryl N. Dawson (Dawson & Dawson Consultants Inc.).

Targeting the job market and building your network. The fourth phase in the process is perhaps the most challenging—developing an understanding of the job market (both advertised and hidden), dealing with search firms and want ads effectively and building a personal career network—critical to finding the right job.

Networking is how 50 percent or more of all jobs are found. The idea is simple: The more people that a job seeker asks for leads, the greater the likelihood of finding one. As Quirk puts it, “Every person you talk to about your job search in turn becomes another pair of ‘eyes and ears’ on the lookout for career opportunities on your behalf.”

Career counselors tell job seekers to make a list of friends, neighbors and professional colleagues. Then they suggest calling these contacts to set up appointments to meet with them. Don’t be shy or embarrassed to talk about your job change during these meetings, and “don’t forget to ask for other people you can contact,” says Quirk. “You’d be surprised how helpful most people want to be,” he says.

Landing the job. The final phase in the outplacement process is locking down a satisfactory job and negotiating with the new employer for salary, perquisites and anything else of importance—in short, “closing the deal.” Far too often, job seekers accept the starting salary that’s offered. In some instances, they’re afraid that if they don’t accept on the spot, the firm will withdraw the offer and move on to the next applicant.

Career coaches say this rarely is the case. Firms invest a great deal of time, and often money, in selecting the right person to fill an opening. The last thing they want to do is let a few dollars or a reasonable request (such as an extra week of vacation) stand in the way of bringing their first choice on board. Further, many corporations and larger accounting firms have to work with salary ranges, so when they offer applicants a salary at the lower end of an established range it leaves room for negotiation. A job seeker who says something like “I really want to work for your firm, but I hope you have some flexibility in your salary offer” likely could obtain a higher starting salary than the opening bid.


The market has been a good one for CPAs for quite a few years, giving them an advantage when it comes to changing jobs. Some see a CPA designation as a built-in asset. “My license gives me instant credibility,” says one. “People know what they are getting.”

In addition, “accountants are easy to work with. They’re focused, well educated and open to learning,” Jonell says. Eisenberg agrees and says, “CPAs tend to land jobs faster than others” because “they often know what they want to do and are computer and Internet savvy.”

For example, when Stephen Ryan and about 30 other Big Five employees were given 90 days’ notice in early 2000, their firm offered outplacement to the downsized employees, but only during the last 30 days of the transition period. By then, Ryan and his colleagues had been scouring the Internet and Sunday newspapers and networking to find job leads. A newspaper ad led him to his present position as an application manager and tax integration specialist before the outplacement services kicked in. Ryan says the service helped him with the interview process, however: “They teach you to concentrate on what stories you want to tell and to focus on the highlights of your career.” He found mock interviews and videotape critiques especially helpful.

Although 80% to 85% of job seekers still find jobs in their own profession—a few change course and do something completely different. Eisenberg cites a CPA who lost his job as a result of corporate reorganization and in counseling stated that although he had made a good living as a CPA and enjoyed the profession, he’d always had a secret desire to be a tap dancer. Using the outplacement process, her CPA client “reinvented himself and his resume and ended up working in a theater doing conferences and programs,” she says.

Other job seekers start businesses, but the figure is small. Only 8% to 10% of displaced managers actually do so. Although CPAs may be more adept at entrepreneurship than others, it isn’t for everyone, says Paul McDonald, a Robert Half executive director. The marketing activities required for “business development could be difficult for many accountants,” he says.

Outplacement professionals say it’s beginning to take a few weeks to a month longer to land a job than was the case a year ago. “The average is still about three to five months,” says Borland. “Individuals with salaries over the $100,000 level may take up to six months to get a job,” says another expert.

Whatever the difficulties, Ryan advises: “Don’t be bitter; that’s only going to show through in the interview. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”

Additional Resources

Coaching is available from a number of entities and individuals (see “ Put Me In, Coach ,” JofA , Nov.01, page 55). State and local agencies such as unemployment offices can provide job-change information including courses and individual career counseling. Other resources include associations (below), their newsletters and archives and interviews with management:

Career-consulting organizations

International Association of Career Management Professionals (IACMP), .

Association of Career Management Consulting Firms International (AOCFI), .

International Board of Career Management Certification (IBCMC), .

Outplacement companies

Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., .

Drake Beam Morin Inc., .

ExecuNet, .

Lee Hecht Harrison Inc., .

OI Partners Inc., .

Right Management Consultants, .

Spherion Corp., .

Self-help and low-cost alternatives

If the expense of outplacement is too much for you, look into the self-help support groups that have sprung up around the country. Many of them operate by word of mouth and are staffed on a volunteer basis by professionals with regular jobs in the career management field. Often they are run by religious entities.

“These self-help groups offer practical and emotional support at a difficult point in an individual’s life,” says Ida Davis, a career management consultant in private practice ( ). Many self-help groups follow a curriculum that is not too different from that of the major outplacement companies, she says. She volunteers her time to one such group in Westchester County, New York. We “provide direction and support. We do not find people jobs,” she says.


A financial professional considering purchasing outplacement services for a business or him- or herself should make sure an outplacement company is trustworthy (see “ How to Choose an Outplacement Service ,” above). Get references and ask for referrals from friends who have been through a recent job search. Check reputations with the Better Business Bureau. Many professional career counselors belong to the International Association of Career Management Professionals, the Association of Career Management Consulting Firms International or the International Board of Career Management Certification. Given the stakes and the intimacy of the outplacement process, be sure to interview potential outplacement candidates to evaluate their suitability. There’s no substitute for face-to-face communication.

It’s not all up to the career consultant either. Anyone who has been through outplacement learns quickly that the job-changing process is a full-time job in itself—one to which the seeker has to give a focused effort. One CPA who works in international banking but didn’t want to be identified says: “It’s one of the most exciting opportunities for personal growth you’ll ever have in your life. It makes you think about what you want to do over the long term.”

The Club Scene

The Five O’Clock Club

This is the best known of the low-cost alternatives to using retail career-consulting services. Started by Kate Wendleton in 1978, the organization operates in several major cities including New York. It is based on a series of books she wrote on the job-changing process (the set of four books is available from the Five O’Clock Club for $38). It offers members a structured job-changing program: They pay a fee of $49 to join (the fee includes a beginners’ kit with a job-search overview booklet) and $400 to attend 10 sessions. Each two-hour session addresses a specific topic related to a successful job search. The first hour is a lecture and the second is counseling, training and networking with other members. The topics include interviewing and post-interview follow-up, for example.

Sometimes it’s the feedback and shared job leads of your out-of-work peers that help you land on your feet. Bob Riscica, CPA, who left his CFO position at a NYSE-listed company in 1997 to join a pre-IPO start-up that subsequently tanked, says the club was very helpful and gave him a sense of belonging, a place to network and a tried-and-true job-changing method. It enables its members “to see what you have in yourself to sell and what jobs are out there,” he says. “It’s important to be part of a group where you have to actively report. A member would never think about coming to a meeting unprepared to discuss his or her job search that week,” Riscica says. “The club helps you see the full picture of your skills and talents and develop alternatives,” he adds.

A CPA in international banking says, “The club makes you think of your overall direction, where you are and where you want to go.” With 20 years of experience, he says, it took him one year to find a new job on the vice-president level. “You need to view the overall job search as a marketing campaign. You have to pursue a number of different avenues for success and work several fronts at once,” he says.

Forty Plus

Another well-organized support group at modest cost with a long track record is Forty Plus. (The New York office of Forty Plus can be reached at 212-358-7646. There is no Web site.) Founded in 1939, the organization operates as a not-for-profit, cooperative enterprise in which members share their knowledge and skills to assist each other in landing jobs. They offer a proven, step-by-step program that walks members through each stage of the job search process. Individuals pay a $500 entry (or enrollment) fee, plus $100 a month to participate in a regimen of sessions on a variety of topics relating to finding a new job.

Membership in Forty Plus is open to all individuals engaged in a full-time job search, who are 40 years old or older, and are executives, managers or professionals with salaries exceeding $40,000. Forty Plus relies heavily on its members to manage the phones, take reservations, arrange meetings and provide administrative support. Located in major cities including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., Forty Plus offers a free “open house” orientation for potential new members several times a week. Job seekers should call in advance to make a reservation.


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