A government employment expert faced a room packed with federal workers earlier this week and told them what, from the looks on their anxious faces, they already knew.

"When you start ordering layoffs, people are going to be hurt," said Richard Yockum, a branch chief of the Department of Energy's personnel operations and one of dozens of officials charged with implementing the Reagan administration's reduction-in-force (RIF) plans. "There's no getting around the fact that it's a nasty damn business."

Hoping to minimize that nastiness, however, government agencies and the area's business community have joined forces to offer emergency job-hunting services to some 4,000 federal workers set to become budget-cutting casualties here by the end of the summer. The employment shake-up, which could affect 15,000 nonmilitary workers nationwide, is unprecedented in this federal city, and it has the private sector worried.

"The federal worker is no different from your next-door neighbor, and we feel very much that we're all in this together," said Suzanne Forsyth, president of the Washington Personnel Association.

Forsyth's group, composed of 350 personnel officers in the private sector, has pitched in to offer free career counseling sessions for federal employes. Working with the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the personnel association is also mounting a campaign to get area employers to fill their job vacancies from the ranks of laid off civil servants.

"To go recruit out of town in a situation like this is kind of criminal," said Forsyth. Instead, private employers are being asked to list any job openings with a central, computerized employment registry being run by the Federal Office of Personnel Management.

Government officials say it is too soon to assess the quality or success of job coordinating efforts, but they praise what they say has been an excellent response to the RIF crisis.

OPM's Job Information Center has, in the words of one official, "dropped everything else" to set up a special computerized referral system that will match the skills of different job-hunting workers with the particular vacancies available with private firms and other government agencies.

Even in this tight job market, according to OPM, the federal government has hired more than 62,000 workers nationwide during this fiscal year. For this reason, OPM is insisting that all federal agencies go through its office before filling any vacancies from outside. And some unions, most notably the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, have worked out RIF agreements whereby an agency that has laid off some of its employes will have to give them first consideration before making any outside hires elsewhere in the agency.

"We want all the job vacancy information we can get," said Steve Davis, chief of recruitment for OPM's Washington office. "We're asking the agencies to bring their [RIFed] people to us, and we're asking the agencies and private employers to tell us what they need."

To this end, the OPM has sent letters to all the agencies, state and local governments, colleges and universities and other private firms, alerting them to what the government calls its Voluntary Interagency Placement Program (VIPP). Both the Washington Personnel Association and the Board of Trade are urging their members to make use of the VIPP services.

"The primary responsibility of the Board of Trade is the economic health of the Washington area," said J. Pat Galloway, president of the organization, explaining why his group is working so actively to find jobs for federal workers. Next week, Galloway will send out a letter to all 1,500 chief executive officer members asking them to participate in the government's job referral program.

The personnel offices at various government agencies have begun to organize job-hunting briefings for people who have received RIF notices or who expect to receive them. At the very least, the agencies are getting the workers to update their resumes and to submit formal job application forms that must be used in seeking any other government jobs. But some departments have put together much more ambitious programs for their employes.

At the Commerce Department, for example, and at the soon-to-be defunct Water Resources Council, personnel officers hired David Waelde of Federal Research Service Inc. to come in and run half-day workshops on job-hunting techniques.

For $800 a group, Waelde gives four hours of advicxe and tips on how to sharpen job-hunting skills that have become rusty. Special attention is paid to the right way of responding to and researching job openings with agencies and private employers "so you don't look like a dummy."

The Washington Personnel Association has also done a fair amount of job counseling, contacting about 2,000 federal employes so far.

But even with all this activity on their behalf, job counselors -- both federal and private -- are warning workers that they must shoulder the brunt of the job-hunting burden.

"The reality is that the workers have only a 20 percent chance of being placed through the agency's efforts," said a career counselor at the Department of Energy. "So the most positive thing I can tell them is that they need to move aggressively on their own."