These days, a career might last a lifetime, but individual jobs do not.

That’s why the No. 1 question that every job candidate and new hire at your company wants to ask – but is afraid to – is this:

“How will you treat me if this job ends?”

Chronic unemployment has been running at its highest since the Great Depression, with a large percentage of unemployed workers jobless for more than six months. Many of those unemployed have been laid off more than once in recent years. When these individuals find new jobs, they inevitably join their new employers with a clearer understanding that few jobs last forever. And yet, when benefits are discussed with candidates and new employees, outplacement benefits are often left unspoken – like a dirty secret no one wants to tell.

It’s time for this to change.

A Fresh Approach to Discussing Outplacement

How organizations treat employees during downsizing says a lot about a company – and employees increasingly expect this kind of transparency.

Whether or not you want to discuss the possibility of layoffs, your employees are already thinking – and talking – about them. A Glassdoor survey found that “employee concerns about layoffs have risen to the highest levels since the height of the recession.” A Towers Watson study earlier found that 45 percent of employees believed their jobs would be changed or eliminated.  

The study concluded that employers “who maintain open lines of communication can reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce and keep the organization on track to compete effectively when the economy revives.”

A survey last year by the Aberdeen Group backs this conclusion by demonstrating the importance of employee engagement and outplacement services. The study found that the desire to improve employee engagement was a top driver in adopting outplacement efforts.

This shows that outplacement benefits, along with standard severance packages and advance notification policies, should be openly discussed with employees with as much freedom – and in as much detail – as conversations about medical, dental, and 401(k) plans.

Burnishing the Employer Brand

While many employers may think bringing up outplacement with new hires is “bad luck,” the opposite is actually true.  Offering outplacement benefits helps burnish a company’s employer brand, and employees who work for a company they perceive positively tend to stay longer – and be prouder of their work. 

In fact, Aberdeen’s study on outplacement suggests that companies offering these services are not only enhancing their image and reputation, but are also reaping huge gains in engagement, recruitment cycle, cost per hire and even unemployment claims.

The benefits of candor work both ways. One Silicon Valley hiring manager, a senior system administrator in an IT services company, reported that when a candidate asked him what benefits the company offered in the event of a layoff, he was initially surprised.  Ultimately, however, the employee’s confidence in asking the question helped to win him the job.

“I thought it showed a great deal of, not only courage,” he said, “but also a high degree of thoughtfulness and potential for initiative. He’s still with the company today, and he’s considered a key employee—mostly because of the traits that caused him to ask that question.”

Job candidates strongly support this transparent approach. “It’s a very intelligent question,” said one senior-level candidate, “particularly in this economy. If the hiring manager appears annoyed by such a question, perhaps the candidate would be better off elsewhere.”

Different Employers, Different Answers

As an HR professional, if you were to talk with your company’s new hires about exit benefits, what would you say? Do you know how your severance benefits stack up against those of your competitors? Can you say how effective your outplacement program is in helping workers in transition find new jobs?

Exit benefits come in all shapes and sizes. Severance packages can be tied to the amount of time an employee has been with the company, but that isn’t the rule. Certain companies pay severance in a lump sum check, and others as a form of salary continuation. As for outplacement services, some companies offer a robust program while others offer a scaled back outplacement solution.  

The “Secret” to Success

Telling a job candidate or new employee, “Yes, we provide outplacement” – without accompanying detail – isn’t enough in 2012. Smart companies are making the quality of their exit benefits a differentiator for their employer brands. In today’s economy, when most workers have lost jobs and know that it could happen again, it’s time to share the details of your outplacement benefits to employees and new hires.

Be prepared to answer the tough questions, but be open about what your company offers. Make sure employees understand how the outplacement process works, ensuring their future success in the event of a lay off.

Providing outplacement services and discussing these benefits with your employees is the right thing to do – especially when unemployment rates are so high. The discussion will ultimately put your employees’ minds at ease, knowing they’ll be taken care of in the event of a layoff. The success of your company lies in the confidence and trust you earn in your past, current and future employees – and that’s no secret.

Discover how outplacement services can significantly aid transitioning employees and add value to the employer brand.

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