Do you still have a job? Check your voice mail

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THE NEWS COMES during a 6 a.m. radio broadcast – just two brief sentences before the weather report. The announcer explains that the beleaguered accounting firm of Arthur Andersen is laying off 7,000 workers. Then he adds: "The company has told employees to check their voice mail this morning to see if they still have a job."

Even that message was reportedly delivered to workers in Chicago by e-mail.

Has employment really come to this – firing by remote? A disembodied voice delivering the bad news? The end of a career, of dreams and hopes and hard work, reduced to an electronic sayonara? How does a manager even phrase that kind of farewell? (Possibility: "We're sorry to inform you that your services are no longer needed. Thank you, good luck, and have a nice day.")

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Granted, 7,000 is a lot of people to notify one by one. And a faceless recording on the phone is no more impersonal than a pink slip in a paycheck – the proverbial method of firing.

Still, when a job must end, it's hard not to long for a personal touch – a manager's voice tinged with regret, a heartfelt thank you, a handshake, even a box of tissues nearby in case of tears.

Such chilly, high-tech efficiency is only one sign of a growing impersonality in the corporate world and beyond. Formal rejection letters, written to job applicants to say "Thanks, but no thanks," are also falling on hard times. Some companies reply by e-mail, but others do nothing. Silence is not always golden, as anxious applicants, waiting for a response – pro or con – can attest.

Companies defend this lack of communication by pointing to a dramatic increase in the number of résumés they receive and a decrease in personnel available to handle them.

Poor communication has alienated other employees and retirees in recent months as companies teetering on the brink of bankruptcy have canceled severance packages, stopped health benefits, and changed pension plans without warning.

It's all enough to make a sad joke of the earnest insistence ofsome companies that "we're a family here."

Business etiquette has become big business in the past decade. Books and classes have proliferated to teach a generation raised in a bluejeans, fast-food culture how to dress for a job interview, which fork to use at lunch with a business client, and what topics of conversation to avoid in professional gatherings. Important information, all.

But etiquette is a two-way street. As expedience supercedes courtesy in some businesses, it may be time to send bosses to finishing school, too.

Loyalty in the workplace has been eroding for at least a decade, among employers and employees alike. Old, unwritten assumptions about what each party owes the other in terms of fair play have given way to a new, no-strings-attached ethos.

From Enron to Arthur Andersen to the ailing Polaroid, executive decisions have also chipped away trust. Yet trust is fundamental to the strength and stability of a family, a friendship, a business. Lose it, and the price can be high.

In one USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll earlier this year, nearly half of respondents said they trust companies only a little or not at all to look out for employees' interests. Yet the good news is that half also put a great deal of faith in the promises their company makes to them and other employees.

Building on that trust with candor and a more personal approach, when appropriate – hold the e-mail, hold the voice mail – could work wonders.

Miss Manners would surely approve.

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