Are there firms in the real world that has staff who go to other companies to fire people like in the movie Up in the Air? Did the movie take inspiration from a real world firm like the one George Clooney works for?
The answer is not exactly, although the film reflects trends in the American workplace.
As employment laws grow more numerous and complex, and workplace litigation explodes, many firms are hiring outside consultants to help them downsize. Some operate behind the scenes but their presence is still felt; others participate directly in layoffs, but usually alongside the employer.
More small and midsize employers are outsourcing their human resource operations to outside firms, sometimes called professional employer organizations. These firms handle tasks such as payroll, workers' compensation, benefits administration, and hiring and firing workers.
Laying off employees "is a service we provide," says Lisa Pinkard, vice president of human resources with Emplicity, an HR outsourcing firm in Irvine. "Usually we have long-term relationships with our clients. It's not like we have mass layoffs and then leave."
All of the firm's consultants will do layoffs as one of their many jobs.
Rebecca Heyman says laying off workers "is a small part" of her job as a senior human capital consultant with TriNet, an HR outsourcing firm based in San Leandro.
"My role is to be the out-of-house HR manager for these companies that are our clients," she says. "If they are going through layoffs, I help them manage that process. But I would not go in by myself and terminate an employee without a representative of the company delivering that message. I'll do a lot of coaching up front. I might be in the room to be a witness/note taker and to answer operational questions."
Heyman thought "Up in the Air" "was a great character study on this isolated individual. But from an HR perspective, I didn't think it was reality," she says. "There is a lot of preparation that goes into making the decision (to terminate someone). That would be too boring to show in a movie. It's analysis, financial considerations. You're not going to watch George Clooney work on a spreadsheet."
Robert Conlon, a senior vice president with Sibson Consulting, agrees. "To the extent it is portrayed in the movie, I'm not aware of companies that are hired to parachute in, deliver the message and escape out of Dodge."
Yes, absolutely there are. Although most external HR consultancies deal with hiring and firing in conjunction with the company's own HR staff there are some companies that offer this as a stand-alone services.
In the past 15 years, Janet Shearer has personally made thousands of employees redundant.
But Janet isn't some cold-hearted, cost-cutting chief executive. She's the managing director of a British firm that sacks other companies' employees.
Ms Shearer says it's difficult to predict exactly how a person will respond to being made redundant.
She agrees that dignity and respect are key to handling the situation - and it doesn't hurt to have some tissues at the ready.
"It can be difficult, but you just try to see that you can support them," she says. "It's not rich tea and sympathy and being really fluffy… But if they wanted to grieve and let that out, absolutely."