Downsize Matters

Grant Shannon, the founder of the Merrill Adams employment firm, makes his living by helping people find jobs, but he prefers to view his behind-the-scenes role metaphorically: “Do you know who Al D’Amato’s campaign manager is? No. Do you care? No. We do for our clients what a political-campaign manager does for candidates seeking office. And no one has to know about it.” His colleagues take the comparison very seriously. One recent Monday afternoon at his Rockefeller Center office, while anxious clients gripped the waiting-room furniture, executive vice-president Arthur Schill chatted eagerly with one on the phone. “I’d like to get you in the market very quickly,” he said. “Is there any chance we can get together tomorrow afternoon?” He hung up and leaned forward. “We’re starting her campaign this week.”

If Schill and Shannon seem especially charged up, they’re not alone: These are heady days for people in their line of work. A series of market dips and corporate mergers has left investment houses, banks, and other major New York employers poised for a wave of downsizings. Citibank and Travelers will send as many as 1,000 New Yorkers to the unemployment line; NBC and CBS recently cut 300 positions each.

Downsizing is nothing new, of course, but those experiencing it have a wholly new field of job counselors and consultants at their disposal, one that their pink-slipped predecessors in the early nineties couldn’t have imagined. Not just glorified unemployment offices but an ultrasensitive, full-service self-help industry, offering everything from standard interview coaching to brush-up sessions on table manners and personal grooming. Merrill Adams counselors even subcontract speech therapists for ill-spoken clients.

“Downsizing can be a real opportunity,” explains Jim Oher, of Chappaqua’s Oher & Associates. “But it’s not an opportunity unless you get over the hurt.” He’s speaking of the opportunity for downsizing’s victims. Regarding the opportunity for his consulting firm, he’s confident there will be more than enough business to go around. “At a forum,” he recalls, “this woman asked me if I was upset because there are so many coaches out there. Ultimately, I’m not, because like everything else, you have to satisfy your clients or there will be a consequence.”

Barbara Laskin, a former TV anchor who readies clients for on-camera appearances, has recently expanded her business to include one-on-one confidence-building workshops. She counsels her charges on everything from how to sit (lean forward) to how to listen (attentively) to how to select a suit jacket (something slimming). Laskin expects that her business will see an increase this year, just as it did in the last recession. “There’s a lot of people out there who simply cannot present themselves,” she says. “I had one young woman, a Harvard MBA, who sounded like a mouse. Her voice just didn’t dovetail with her résumé, so we worked on presentation.”

Drake Beam & Morin, which is often hired by major corporations to counsel laid-off workers, offers so many micro-targeted options (like personalized two-page marketing plans and detailed physical critiques), they’ve become a kind of self-improvement boot camp. Joan Oliver, a certified image consultant, gives lessons on body language and lunch interviews. “I remind them the water glass goes on the right and the butter dish is on the left,” she explains.

According to Arnold Brown, a trend analyst and co-author of The Insider’s Guide to the Future, this is just the beginning. In the future, he says, “the idea of free agency is going to move into the business world.” Outplacement agents will become more like talent agents, amassing more power and negotiating deals for clients. The agents seem ready for whatever ethical complexities that development may entail. “Citibank and Travelers laying off thousands of people,” says Oher, taking a pause, “it’s awful. But it is a huge industry.”

“It is sad. But what would be really sad,” adds Alan Kramer of DBM, “is if we weren’t around to help them.”

Downsize Matters