At most banks they are the downsized or laid off. But at Chase Manhattan Corp., those who get the ax through no fault of their own are "VIPs."

Every year Chase offers hundreds of "very important persons," for as long as they want and regardless of their rank, a host of services ranging from free career counseling to skills training to job-search coaching.

It is one of the few outplacement programs run directly by a bank, and Chase is clearly proud of the way it takes care of the displaced.

"We try to make a clerk or a filing person feel as important as an executive who makes $500,000 a year," said David L. Rottman, the vice president who oversees the outplacement operation. Claude V. Weir Jr., Chase senior vice president and director of employee relations, added, "We want them to leave with their heads high."

Chase Manhattan's program is emblematic of the kinder, gentler approach that banking companies have been taking in response to the massive layoffs of recent years.

Over the last decade, 5% of the jobs in commercial banking have vanished due to labor-saving technology and mergers.

But even as the VIP treatment generates good feelings all around, it is backed by hard business logic, Chase executives and industry experts said.

"It's purely a good business decision," said Larry White, director of the banking excellence program at Mississippi State University. "In effect, banks have put a value on that benefit of good will."

Fairfax Randolph, manager of Interim Career Consulting, an outplacement firm in San Francisco, said he has been impressed with how California banks have treated workers who lose jobs after mergers.

"All of these organizations have bent over backward to do the right thing," he said.

The reasoning is that such treatment will reduce resentment and discourage those who find jobs with other banks from taking customers with them.

Satisfied workers may also be less likely to sue the bank claiming wrongful termination, and might even refer friends to job openings at their old employer. Some may end up working for suppliers, competitors, or customers. And there is a good chance they are retail customers themselves.

Said one former Chase employee who recently landed a new job after using the outplacement program: "They succeeded in getting across that they care. I do think it's a smart thing for them to do."

Chase's program is widely seen as one of the most progressive. Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Montreal, which have reached a merger agreement, and Long Island's old power utility, Lilco, are among the companies that have sought Chase's advice on outplacement.

Chase since 1969 has had a permanent department dedicated to finding the VIPs new jobs-an exception to the rule by which most banks and corporations hand their programs off to outside consultants. Chase brings in outside assistance as required-currently 22 independent career consultants.

Chase certainly has demand: With 70,000 employees, there are likely to be layoffs in one department or another at any given time.

Some mock Chase's upbeat tone. One former employee, hearing of the outplacement center, cracked, "Oh yeah-the aloha room."

But Mr. Rottman said he and his staff of five regularly get cards and letters of thanks from those they have helped. Chase declined to make available for interviews any employees using the service. But the ex- employee who recently landed a job with a pharmaceutical manufacturer had only good things to say about it.

"I feel the (counselors) genuinely care about the people who are there," she said. "They care personally. They want people to succeed."

Another measure of the program's success is the large number of former employees who keep Chase informed of job openings at their new companies.

"You have these people who have become ambassadors for Chase," Mr. Weir said. Chase has had "almost no litigation" from laid-off workers, he added.

Chase prides itself on making outplacement services available to employees at all levels, with no time limit. The bank does acknowledge that high-level executives get special treatment-their job searches are handled personally by executive search firms.

Chase's centers, one in Manhattan and another about an hour away in Jericho on Long Island, consist of private cubicles equipped with phones, computer rooms, and classrooms. The walls are decorated with modern art prints, and there are stacks of training and job-hunting literature.

Laid-off workers often start with counseling to deal with the emotions associated with a job loss. Then they move to the practical work of finding a new one. Often they decide to shift careers, work part-time, or even retire.

Employees are entitled to education grants-$2,500 for full-time workers and half that for part-timers-as well as help in getting financial aid. They get free training in computer programs like Word and PowerPoint, assistance in writing and sharpening their resumes, and interview training.

At their disposal are thousands of job listings as well as word processors, Internet access, and telephones with personal voice mail accounts.

Sometimes the jobs come to the workers, in the form of Chase-hosted job fairs. Recent visitors included American Express, Fleet Financial Group, and New York University Medical Center.

Chase remains in the middle of a three-year downsizing program resulting from the 1996 merger with Chemical Banking Corp. Through March the bank had eliminated 12,000 positions through attrition, a hiring freeze, and layoffs.

In March, the bank announced that another 2,200 workers would go as it eliminated 4,500 jobs. All of this has kept Chase's "career services" arm busy.

The bank handled 1,100 outplacement clients last year and 2,900 in 1996. Executives declined to project how many it will serve this year.

The bank succeeds in placing 70% to 80% of the clients it assists, Mr. Rottman said. Some are harder to place than others. Older executives, for example, face additional challenges. Often they end up as temporary consultants for financial institutions, said Anita Lands, a career counselor working with the bank.

Many of Chase's laid-off workers end up back at the bank; as many as 30% end up moving to other departments, Mr. Rottman said.

That is another good reason to have an in-house outplacement business, he said.

Observers say there is no apparent trend toward in-house outplacement programs. But with mergers getting ever larger, banks are likely to keep taking care of those displaced.

Part of banks' motivation may be good old-fashioned shame, said Mr. White. Long portrayed in the popular culture as cold-hearted, "banks still seem to be somewhat self-conscious about how they're perceived."

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