PAUL Curley has been described as a corporate ambulance chaser. He advertises his services in terms of guilt, shame and fear. As managing director of Q3 Associates, an outplacement company, he is doing a roaring trade with sacked executives who need to find new jobs. Outplacement is a US$1 billion (about HK$7.7 billion) business in the United States and worth US$20 million in Japan. Mr Curley sees no reason why it should not become as big in Hong Kong. A recent survey by Price Waterhouse found that 38 per cent of companies in Hong Kong could not guarantee their expatriates a definite position upon their return home. Other studies have found that as many as 40 per cent who do return, leave their companies within two years. 'In the US, you can expect to be sacked at least once in your career,' Mr Curley said. 'Just because Hong Kong's economy is doing well does not mean that people will not lose their jobs. This is a very fluid market. Demands for skills are constantly changing. 'To remain competitive, companies have to let people go. Rising costs here also mean companies are relocating or thinking twice about the expense of expatriate packages.' It is the company, not the sacked individual that employs the outplacement firm. Mr Curley argues that as an economy becomes more sophisticated, increasing numbers of companies will want to be seen to be providing sacked employees with the outplacement cushion. 'We help preserve a company's good image,' he said. 'The dismissal of a long-term employee has a negative impact on the recruiting of new employees and the morale of those left. If a firm gets a reputation of hiring and firing, it won't be able to attract and retain the best employees. That's why they want us.' Outplacement can be an emotional business and it is the human cost that Mr Curley wants to communicate to his clients, hence his advertising strategy which attempts to play on feelings of corporate guilt by elaborating, in painful detail, how it feels to be sacked. 'It is not just a matter of negotiating six months severance pay,' he said. 'People feel a sense of shame, their self-confidence is shattered, they feel a loss of identity. In Hong Kong, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world, people pin their identity on what they do. 'When a person is sacked, their world has been pulled out from under them. No matter how much money they are offered, people feel rejected, angry and bitter. 'Typically, they have not had to look for a job for the past 10 years. They have no idea how to go about it. They panic. They get on the phone to everyone they know and try to find something immediately, which is usually a disaster.' Q3 sees the job search as a long-term strategy involving careful financial planning and a comprehensive marketing strategy. 'What we do is get down there in the trenches with them and help them fight their way out.' On average it takes three to four months to find a job with Q3 - the longest search has been nine months - and 100 per cent of its clients have been successful. Mr Curley worked with the Wyatt Company for 12 years in the US and Europe before setting up in Hong Kong in 1991. Q3 is affiliated with Sanders and Sydney in Britain, Lee Hecht and Harrison in the US and other outplacement firms in Canada and the US. Mr Curley can now point to a roll call of 70 of the top Hong Kong financial and service industry companies that have used his services, including Coca-Cola, Hongkong Bank and Hutchison Whampoa. If there is such a thing as a perk to being sacked, it is outplacement. The majority of sacked employees do not get outplacement. It is not offered when there is a clear case of performance or disciplinary problems. It is offered in the grey areas where performance is not the major issue and, typically, given to employees who have been with a company for a long time. 'More than half of outplacement candidates come to this point partly because of a clash of personality,' Mr Curley said. 'When a company looks at reorganisation and there are 10 chairs to be filled by 11 people, it tends to be personality that determines who gets the job. People who are the victims of cost-cutting nominate themselves because of personality. They just don't fit in.' Increasingly, Q3 is working with expatriates. A typical laid-off executive is male, aged between 40 and 50, and on $1 million per annum, with $60,000 a month housing allowance plus home leave, school fees and club membership. The total package is worth $2.5 million a year. Local clients tend to be on cash packages of up to $1 million without the other perks and have the same age profile. Mr Curley is paid 15 per cent of the individual's cash pay per annum including bonus. As most people who come to Q3 are making $800,000 to $1 million a year, this means about $120,000 for Q3, per assignment. 'It will not make me a millionaire, but it's a living,' he said. Hongkong Bank's head of personnel, Brian Renwick, is a satisfied outplacement customer. 'It's for situations where people who are perfectly competent just cannot fit in anymore. They have the skills but after a few years' employment, we find the rare situation where we have to ask the person to leave. We try to make it as painless as possible and outplacement helps. But it is never pleasant,' he said.