You've got mail: 'We're letting you go'

Impersonal 'cyber-firings' via e-mail – even text message – have become an expedient way to lay employees off.

Laura Browne remembers all too well the day in 1999 when she stayed home from work, ill, and received a startling phone message from her boss. "The company hasn't been doing well," he began. "We've had to let some people go, and you've been affected. As of today, you're off the payroll."

Seven years later, that cavalier treatment still rankles her. "They couldn't even have left a message saying, 'We have to talk to you about something – please call us back.' I would have liked the courtesy of having my boss actually talk to me about it."

Ms. Browne is not alone in longing for courtesy. Delivering bad news to employees is never pleasant, but as technology grows more sophisticated, "cyber-firings" and layoffs are becoming more expedient for some employers. Last month Radio Shack notified 400 employees by e-mail that they were being laid off. (Several weeks earlier, the company had held meetings to inform workers that those affected would receive layoff notices via e-mail.)

The pink slip has gone high-tech, dismaying some workplace observers. "It's disrespectful of the employee," says Julie Freeman, president of the International Association of Business Communicators in San Francisco. "Losing one's job is a very difficult circumstance in almost every case. The very least you can do for the individual you're laying off is have the courage to meet face to face."

An impersonal approach to layoffs can also have ripple effects on those who are staying. "It's bad for morale," Ms. Freeman says.

In an informal survey of 500 members of her association, 37 percent say they use face-to-face meetings to deliver bad news. Twenty-nine percent rely on e-mail. Layoffs top the list of the most common issues they communicate to employees.

Ruth Haag, author of "Hiring and Firing: Book Three," finds e-mail terminations "almost as rude as mailing a letter." One food processing plant in California sent 1,000 workers a letter at home, telling them they were being laid off.

"Each thought they were the only one being laid off until they talked to their friends," Ms. Haag says. "I'm sure that when a letter is sent home, the hope is that the person will recover from their upset before they come in to work to clean out their possessions."

For Drew Stevens of St. Louis, news that he had been fired from his management position with a financial services firm came by FedEx. He found an envelope on his doorstep when he returned from his mother-in-law's funeral.

He calls impersonal methods such as this "the wicked game of chicken," adding, "No one should ever be surprised that they're going to be terminated." He is now an organizational consultant.

But even face-to-face notifications sometimes leave much to be desired. Alan Weiss was fired in 1985 by a well-known financier when he was president of one of the man's companies.

"He did it at the Admiral's Club of American Airlines in O'Hare airport," Mr. Weiss says. "He was wearing a cape and came in with a retinue of six people. He told me my services were no longer required. He said, 'Good luck, I'm moving on to other things.' He got up and walked out." Vowing that no one would ever treat him that way again, Weiss started his own highly successful consulting practice in East Greenwich, R.I.

Still, over the years he has observed rude dismissals. "I've seen people fired by e-mail and people fired by a security officer arriving at their desk and saying, 'Get your personal things and follow me.'" Some have received a phone call at home in the evening saying, "Don't bother to come in tomorrow." Others learned the news from the human resources department. One large financial firm in New York coolly calls its fired employees "attrits," to signal attrition.

But Weiss also sees examples of considerate treatment. He worked with a utility in southern New Jersey that needed to reduce its staff by 200. With the company's help, everyone found other employment.

Browne, too, finds that businesses in general are doing a much better job with dismissals. "Whether it's because they've had more practice doing it, or whether they've spent more time planning it, the stories I've heard are much more compassionate," says Browne, author of "Why Can't You Communicate Like Me?" Typically large companies do not let workers go via e-mail, she says. They also meet with those who are left, to help relieve "survivor's guilt."

In a high-tech age, the need to treat terminated workers respectfully grows more important. "With electronic communication, a dissatisfied employee can be very open about it," Freeman says. "They have vehicles to talk about dissatisfaction. There was a time when if you were a dissatisfied employee, you might talk to your wife, your neighbors. But now there are blogs and e-mails."

Cyber-perils take other forms as well. One worker surprisingly received an e-mail stating that his medical insurance was being canceled. "That's how he found out he was being fired," Haag says.

Even that cannot top the experience of Katy Tanner, a shop clerk in Wales. She learned via a text message on her cellphone that she had been fired. Like Browne, she received the news when she was home sick for a day. Her boss wrote:

"Hi Katy its alex from the shop. Sorry 2 do this by text but ive been trying to call u + ur phones been switched off. Ive had a meeting with jon + ian and weve reviewed your sales figures and they're not really up to the level we need. As a result we will not require your services any more. You will receive your last pay packet on Friday 28th july. Thank you for your time with us."

That kind of cyber-approach leaves workplace specialists aghast. John Roslansky, an employment lawyer in Wellesley, Mass., who has done hundreds of terminations, says, "There's no reason you can't do it with class."

That applies to workers, too. "Employees should take it politely and keep their emotions to themselves until they get home," Haag says. "You just don't know what's going to happen in the future. If you say something rude, you might see this person again at another company."

As layoffs increase, the need to treat employees humanely grows more urgent, both for the well-being of workers and for the reputation of the firm. Last month, US employers cut 65,278 jobs, up from a six-year low of 37,178 in July, according to the outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Some workers take legal action. Citing a study by a human resources magazine on why people sue after being let go, Browne says, "People felt they were treated unfairly. They weren't listened to. They were just given a package, or they were walked out. Nobody took a personal interest. They felt hurt. People who feel hurt are more likely to want to do something about it, including sue."

Whatever the circumstances, Browne encourages those dismissed to approach the next step positively.

In her management classes for women, she says, "I teach that when there is a major change, it's not the end of the world. Many of the people I talk to after a layoff say it was the push they needed to get a better job. After you get over the sadness, the anger, you may end up with a better job."

Things to remember when letting employees go

When layoffs or firings are necessary, John Roslansky, an employment lawyer in Wellesley, Mass., offers these suggestions for managers:

•Inform employees about separations in the middle of the workweek, so they can reach out with questions the following day rather than brooding over a weekend.

•Give the bad news early and gently in the conversation so employees aren't in suspense.

•Express your regret and disappointment at the need to make the decision to dismiss them.

•Be clear about any shortcomings that led to the decision, but don't be needlessly harsh. Explain the decision in objective and nonjudgmental terms.

•Give the employee an opportunity to visit professionally with co-workers and say goodbye.

•Allow a reasonable time (generally within the course of that day) for individuals to pack their things. Let them do so on their own time or after hours if they prefer. You may have to supervise them for an off-hours departure, but you save the employee the embarrassment of a public departure.

•Note that it's rarely a bad person being fired. Most people make an earnest effort to do a good job. Generally, layoffs are caused by poor communications, poor expectations, or changes beyond anyone's control. It's rarely a question of good or bad people – just good people in the wrong place.

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