FALLOUT Life on the Firing Squad

Downsizing Firm Specializes in the Art of Letting Employees Go

Business is booming at an outplacement firm that teaches companies how to execute mass downsizings and helps guide laid-off employees through the crisis.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009

NEW YORK -- The first phone call comes 30 seconds after Kim Hall arrives at her desk. She groans, chases two Tylenol with a gulp from her extra-large coffee and sweeps her bangs away from her eyes. She reaches into a drawer and grabs the notepad that contains what her colleagues refer to as "the tally of destruction." After the third ring, Hall grabs the phone and presses it to her ear. It is 9:03 a.m. on a Wednesday, and another day of economic collapse has begun.

"Five O'Clock Club, this is Kim," she says. "How are you this morning?"

She rocks in her chair as she listens and scribbles notes: A law firm in Manhattan. Downsizing. Their third one this year. Twelve employees. Probably in August. More to come in October and November.

"I'm sorry," Hall tells the caller. "This is so hard. This is really awful."

She hangs up the phone, only for it to ring again. Again. Again. A language translation company in New York needs to fire 30; a not-for-profit in Washington plans to lay off six; a church has to cut three employees with a combined 50 years of service; an insurance company in Kansas needs to let go of two vice presidents; a zoo must dismiss its zookeeper. Hall listens to each caller describe the latest wreckage of this recession. "I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry," she says, over and over, until the morning Tylenol has worn off, the headache returns and she reaches into her desk for another dose.

This is what life is like as vice president of the Five O'Clock Club, an outplacement firm at the epicenter of the economic crisis. Hall coaches businesses on how to execute mass downsizings and often visits companies on the designated day to help coordinate a layoff. Then she speaks to the newly unemployed within 30 minutes of their dismissal and offers tips on how to begin a job search. She comforts those who cry and commiserates with those who vent. She does this, sometimes, with 20 despondent people each day. It is a misery so numbingly constant that it no longer feels miserable. It is her job.

And lately, it is a profitable one. The Five O'Clock Club has nearly doubled in size during the past two years, and Hall has guided more than 200 companies and 1,500 laid-off workers through downsizings in the past six months. The Club, as it is sometimes called, charges each company about $2,000 per fired employee in exchange for providing layoff victims with a year of career coaching. The more businesses that suffer, the better for business at the Club. When Hall joined the company in 2007, she read in the employee handbook that "from time to time, employees will receive small bonuses when the company is doing exceptionally well." Now those bonuses come almost every month.

As Hall sits in her cubicle answering calls, she is surrounded by the evidence of a company expanding at hyper speed. The Five O'Clock Club still occupies an office intended for its first three employees -- a studio apartment inside a Manhattan high-rise, Suite 6L, 460 square feet hidden behind a whitewashed door like all the others, across from a laundry room where tenants come and go in their pajamas.

Fourteen employees now jockey for space inside. A secretary sits at the entryway. Three cubicles are located in what looks like a walk-in closet. Mailing boxes are piled high in the bathtub. Office supplies spill out from the kitchen cabinets. Hall sits under a window in a rear corner, hemmed in by three other desks, with her purse underfoot and four electric fans blowing in a futile attempt to keep her cool.

No matter how frenetic the office becomes, it can never keep pace with metastasizing demands. Years ago, when business was slow, the Five O'Clock Club promised companies that it would contact laid-off workers within 30 minutes of dismissal. It seemed like a reasonable guarantee at the time, when the business coordinated one layoff every few weeks. But now, with layoffs unfolding by the day, Hall clicks open a document on her computer listing recent layoff victims and notices that it is several pages long. "This is crazy," she says. She begins to dial, starting with the names at the top.

An accountant, 42, from San Jose, who earned $95,000: "I know this is hard," Hall says, "but you'll get back on your feet."

A secretary, 59, from Illinois, who earned $45,000: "The timing could actually work in your favor," Hall says. "A lot of people take vacation in the summer. There's no competition for job-hunters."

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