James E. Challenger, founder of the outplacement industry and champion of discharged workers, died on August 30th at his home outside Chicago. He was 93.
He was raised in Park Ridge, IL and graduated from Harvard in 1947 and Northwestern Law in 1951. In 1961, he was dismissed from his law firm position for taking time off. Though he found a new law job, the experience left him interested in the job search process and the responsibility of companies to take care of their separated workers. Shortly after, his desire to help during one of the most stressful periods in a person’s life led him to found Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the first outplacement firm in the country.
He lamented to the United Press International’s Leroy Pope in 1983: ”I discovered that nearly everything about job hunting was written by people engaged in hiring, people who were looking at the matter from the wrong end of the telescope,” he said. ”They were interested in what employers wanted, not in what job hunters needed to do.”
As the concept of lifetime employment started to come to an end in the 1980s and ‘90s, Challenger was a critical voice in the national press on the responsibility of companies to help their former workers after a layoff. He tirelessly insisted that companies should address the harm of layoffs on the mental and physical well-being of the unemployed. He decried the fact that individuals were stigmatized in the job market because they had been discharged, and he advocated for the idea of no-fault job loss.
He was an outspoken champion of the older worker, advocating for companies to eliminate the retirement age, which he thought was wrongheaded, believing that forcing someone to stop working due to age was ultimately unhealthy, not only for the individual, but also society.
In 1993, Challenger founded the Challenger Layoff Report, still in existence today, which put a microscope on the sheer number of job cuts announced by companies month-by-month. His delineation of the sheer size and scope of the layoffs shocked the country, and it put him at the center of a national conversation on the impact of layoffs on individuals, and their families and communities.
He told the UPI: ”I think most people are concerned about other people…Corporations have consciences. I don’t know anybody that likes to let anybody else go. If they discharge a person at least they can help him find the next job. It’s almost a duty.”
As a member of the Greatest Generation, and having served in World War II, Challenger was deeply committed to helping the unemployed put their lives back together. His dedication to this cause, and to the outplacement field he pioneered, helped institutionalize the industry and the idea that companies had a responsibility to the people whose employment was terminated.
Today, the company Challenger founded has 27 offices, more than 300 employees, and helps over 10,000 job seekers per year. Challenger served as CEO until 1998, when his son, John, took over the CEO role. He served as Chairman of the Board until his passing.