Little in life is more painful than losing your job, as thousands of Washington-area workers have learned in the last year or so.

The pain of being laid off can be lessened somewhat if the company provides severance and health benefits and it helps in the search for a new job or offers counseling.

But an informal survey of local firms shows some area companies help a lot more than others.

Some companies, mostly smaller employers and those in financial difficulties, do little more than tell workers to clean out their desks and pick up their check at the end of the week. Others marshal their own staffs to offer advice and help in the job hunt. Still others bring in outside firms -- "outplacement" is the buzzword -- to perform those functions.

When Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney canceled the Navy's A-12 program early last month, the ax fell on two Maryland subcontractors. Westinghouse Electronics Systems Group fired 1,200 workers from its Linthicum and Hunt Valley locations; Litton Systems Inc. laid off about 200 employees from its Amecom division in College Park.

Both companies held job fairs and provided advice on resume-writing and financial planning. But even so, the way Litton did it left a bad taste, according to several Litton employees who also were familiar with Westinghouse's procedures.

The first 150 Litton workers were let go as soon as Cheney canceled the contract, the second week in January. The rest were released in dribs and drabs over subsequent weeks. And while the company put on two job fairs and contacted possible employers, it did it in a low-profile manner, according to employees.

Westinghouse, on the other hand, said at the time of the cancellation that 1,200 workers might have to go, but did not make any layoff notifications until Feb. 1. Moreover, the company said, everyone would stay on the payroll until the end of the month. Westinghouse also ran a hot line, took out full-page newspaper ads inviting prospective employers to call, and set up a resource center with word processors, fax machines and other facilities for job hunting.

According to interviews with employees at the two firms, severance pay at Westinghouse was more generous. "I feel one day's notice and three weeks of severance is difficult to deal with when you're a senior level person," said a departing Litton employee with just under 10 years of service. Neither company would discuss the details of its severance package.

James O. Harmon, Litton vice president for human resources, said employees to whom he talked were pleased with the company's actions. "I think we followed our policy precisely and we went beyond the guidelines a person might expect if he gets laid off. ... I'm sure employees would have liked to have more time, but there comes a time when you have to make decisions," Harmon said.

Parting amicably is important, experts say, not only to avoid possible charges of discrimination, but also to ensure that when times get better, the company will be able to recruit good workers -- perhaps even persuading those who were laid off to come back.

"They have to do something that will help them attract people in the future," said Nancy Pera, vice president of Manchester Inc., an outplacement firm with an office in Washington. "Would you want to go with a company that just lays people off with no support whatsoever?"

Another outplacement expert, who asked not to be named, said laid-off employees do better in some business sectors in the Washington area than others. Businesses with the most generous severance and other assistance tend to be those that rely on people to sell their services: insurers, financial institutions, accountants and consultants, she said.

The stingiest employers, according to the experts, often are retail stores, hotels, real estate developers and construction companies -- all fairly cyclical industries where layoffs and rehirings are common. Government contractors often provide little help because the cost can't be charged to a particular contract; trade associations are a mixed bag, she said.

A company's financial situation is a leading indicator of how much it can help its workers. When Fantle's drug stores closed after the company filed for bankruptcy last year, throwing about 2,000 people out of work, employees received at least five weeks of severance pay and some outplacement services. But company owner Sheldon Fantle said he would have liked to have done more.

"When you're liquidating, you fight for what you can get," he said. "We fought with the creditors committee to make certain as equitable as possible a severance program was set up."

Employees cut adrift from their employers do have some options. Most can turn to their local employment agencies -- the D.C. Department of Employment Services, the Maryland Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the Virginia Employment Common -- for help with benefits and, in some areas, job hunting.

Erol's Inc., an area video rental chain, is providing no assistance to the 37 workers it is laying off effective next month. But officials from the Virginia Employment Commission visited the firm's Springfield headquarters to provide advice on unemployment benefits and job hunting, according to an employee. Company officials declined comment.

Similarly, the Fairfax County Career Development Center for Women runs sessions (for both men and women) on coping with job loss that includes advice on emotional support, financial planning and job prospects. Elizabeth Lee McManus, the center's director, said the sessions are heavily subscribed -- usually with people who have nowhere else to turn.

"Most people we see are on their own," she said. "We are getting stories of people being told one day not to show up the next day."