February 16, 2018

Article on Outplacement Firm Backfires for Brooklyn Public Library

By Norman Oder

Firm president, library director apologize to staff

  • Library says it agreed to be anonymous in article
  • Painful details of firings
  • Apology sent to staff
  • Washington Post says library did cooperate

For readers, a long Washington Post article published August 9 and headlined The Art of Letting Employees Go, was an intimate look at the work of the Five O’Clock Club (FOCC), an outplacement firm that charges clients “about $2,000 per fired employee in exchange for providing layoff victims with a year of career coaching.” 

The major focus of the article: Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), which laid off 13 staffers in response to a budget cut of about five percent.

For BPL, whose anonymous laid-off staffers are identifiable to colleagues, it was an embarrassment, leading both the director of the FOCC and the director of BPL to apologize to the staff.

In an August 13 memo to staff obtained by LJ, Dionne Mack-Harvin, BPL’s executive director, 
wrote, “I want to assure you that the library did not collaborate with either the Washington Post or The 5 O’Clock Club in writing this article.

"We did hire The 5 O’Clock Club to assist in the restructuring of our staff," she continued. "During our work, the company informed us that a reporter had been following them for several months to gather information about the company for an article. They asked if the reporter could observe their work here at the library. We were told that the library and the activities surrounding the reduction of our workforce would not be part of any article on The 5 O’Clock Club; however, it is clear that we were misled.”

Attached was an apology from company president Kate Wendleton, who wrote, “I intended this article to be a profile of my company, The Five O’Clock Club, and not, as it turned out, a detailed and personal account of the downsizing that took place at BPL. As a matter of fact, the mention of Brooklyn Public Library by name should never have happened.”

“I apologize for this very sad episode, and acknowledge the misuse of sensitive library information,” Wendleton wrote. “I am deeply distressed that some of you have suffered because of this article. I want to assure you that Brooklyn Public Library went overboard to make certain that their employees would be well taken care of and handled with dignity and care.”

What BPL agreed to
BPL, confirmed spokeswoman Stefanie Arck, did agree to let the reporter “observe interactions that involved only the FOCC and our HR staff/their contacts at BPL” and BPL agreed to cooperate, as long as the library was not mentioned by name.  

[Update 5:30 pm August 19: Washington Post national enterprise editor David Finkel told LJ, "I’m assured that the reporter at least twice before the article was published was in touch directly with the library about the parameters of the story, and the article we published was within the parameters, including using the name of the library." The Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote that Wendleton said her note of apology was actually written by library officials. BPL’s Judith Nichols reiterated to Alexander that "the understanding we had from the Five O’Clock Club was that the library would not be named at all."]

Is the FOCC doing anything further for BPL? “The FOCC will continue to offer placement services to affected staff as we want to ensure they receive as much assistance in this transitional time as possible," Arck said, referencing the existing contract with the firm. 

Painful details
The article offers grimly voyeuristic details: one staffer has the key to the employee bathroom, but that staffer will be fired later that day. One “layoff victim… [has] her head bowed and a distant stare in her eyes.” Another “appears to [have] tear stains on her blouse.”

The story ends with the FOCC’s Kim Hall expressing some optimism: "I know what these people don’t…. They will suffer for a while and then move on to something else.” While acknowledging Hall’s assertion that they did the firings right, the library’s director of human resources, Larry Jennings, says that "it’s still going to take me time to get over it. It’s exhausting."

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