Fired workers in need of teacher

Q: My husband and I work for a company that provides career services. We occasionally have “outplaced” clients who were advised at the time of their release, “It’s not you; it’s the economy.” However, in communicating with the employer, we might find out that there were legitimate performance issues that might negatively affect the person in a new job. Here’s our dilemma: If we know that there are issues such as frequent tardiness or absences, or not working to agreed-upon standards, how can we address them without revealing information that could open both the company and our organization to potential lawsuits? – Martha

Dale: Whether it’s misplaced civility or fear of confrontation/lawsuits, most employers prefer to make excuses for firings, blaming the economy or the market. Plus, it’s human nature for the person being fired to glom on to the proffered excuse rather than turn introspective. The result is that the learning curve doesn’t get a chance to start curving. Likewise, it’s tempting for career-services people to look the other way. The result is comparable to teachers who pass students who ought to fail until we end up with graduates who can’t read their own diplomas. In organizational life, we end up with “social illiterates” – workers tossed onto a downward spiral, each job harder to find as the history of layoffs and firings accumulates behind them.

Kate: When we at the Five O’Clock Club get a corporate assignment, we like to ask management for background that might help us help the former employee. We know, however, that the information we’ll get back might be biased, so we do our own analysis. For example, if HR told us the person is always late, we’re sure to notice if they’re prompt for our appointments. When the person is late with us, then we can say, “I’m concerned that you’ll show up late for meetings at your new job and end up hurting yourself.” But if you can’t get your client to admit to weaknesses, then you’re stuck … unless the employee allows you to gather feedback. Once you have agreement, then you can make phone calls to former managers on the employee’s behalf and get responses that will get the dialogue – and learning – started.