Is There a Good Way to Get Fired?

Perhaps not, but there are definitely some really bad ways that employees have suddenly lost their jobs. Radio Shack made headlines last week for delivering the 21st century version of the pink slip by laying off over 400 employees via e-mail. The resulting publicity then spawned some stories about even more egregious ways that companies have decided to divest themselves of unwanted employees. They’d almost be funny, except when you realize that each one of these stories involves someone who lost their livelihood without warning, beginning a struggle that in some cases can go on for years, as employees try to recreate what they’ve lost.

Radio Shack needed to lay off over 400 employees, mostly at its corporate headquarters. On Tuesday, August 29, it delivered the following e-mail to those selected for termination:

The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.

(See National Ledger article.) Workers who received the notification then had 30 minutes to collect their thoughts, make phone calls and say goodbye to employees before they went to meet with senior leaders. Coffee bars were set up on each floor, and laid-off Radio Shack employees then met with supervisors and human resources personnel before leaving. Complimentary boxes and plastic bags were also distributed for employees to pack their personal belongings in. (See Associated Content article.) The laid-off workers will receive up to three weeks pay for each year of service. Hourly employees can expect up to 16 weeks, while workers that made more than $90,000 a year will get 36 weeks. (See WIStv.com article.)

When I first learned about this, my reaction was the following: “Doing it via email seems to be the cowardly way out. RadioShack should have invested the time and effort into figuring out a compassionate way to do it. They’re not the first company to have to lay off in a large way.” Others were not so critical: Said defense lawyer Mike Kelly of the San Francisco firm Squire Sanders and Dempsey, “It certainly is an ecologically friendly way to do it,” – apparently seriously, according to the reporter who interviewed him, Janice Podsada. Kelly said that more and more companies are distributing important memos electronicallyand their workforces are growing accustomed to it. (See Hartford Courant article.)

How did the company defended its choice of how to deliver the bad news? Said corporate spokesperson Kay Jackson, “It was important to notify people as quickly as possible,” and that the electronic notification was quicker and allowed more privacy than breaking the news in person. The workers also had notice that it was coming, in that company officials had told employees in a series of meetings that layoff notices would be delivered electronically. Jackson said employees were invited to ask questions before the notification on a company Intranet site. (See National Ledger article.)

Although I wasn’t thrilled with Radio Shack’s approach, it started to look pretty good once some other articles started appearing with the theme of “worst ways employees were ever fired.” A CNNMoney article entitled “Worst ways to get fired,” listed this tongue-in-cheek strategy:

Strategy 2: Consider the cattle call. It can build team spirit.
One company herded employees into an auditorium and gave them one of two color-coded information packets. Those with the same color packets sat together. The two groups were then escorted out of the auditorium through different exits. One led back to the office, which meant that group of employees could stay. The other led to the street, which meant the workers should file for unemployment.

Another strategy advised that there is no such thing as “too low,”so companies shouldn’t be afraid to test bottom and let employees figure things out for themselves. The example given: One company deliberately left a new organizational chart on the photocopy machines. Some employees were left off entirely, and others were moved to new positions. (See CNNMoney article.) Readers responding to the CNN Money story had their own tales: Al of Toronto said that this happened to a coworker of his:

We went out for lunch and when we came back his security pass wouldn’t work so I let him through the gate. We passed the boss’s office on the way to our desks. He went in and said “I need a new pass. Mine’s failed.” The boss said “Your pass hasn’t failed. You don’t work here.” and took the card out of his hand.

(See CNNMoney Blog comments.)

In the Washington Post, Amy Joyce’s article, Fired Via E-Mail, And Other Tales Of Poor Exits, discusses the Radio Shack firing, and adds some more true stories from workers she interviewed. Peter Storandt, now director of marketing for a higher education association in the District, was director of admissions at a Boston law school in the early 90s. In the midst of an interview with a potential new student, he was summoned to the dean’s office and forced to terminate the interview. There, the dean told Storandt that he was being replaced with a computer system that would figure out which students to admit. Not only was the job over immediately, but the dean expected that Storand would consider it a lucky break, asking Storandt what he would do with his time off and suggesting sailing in Nantucket. While Storandt found a better job after a couple of months on unemployment and some consulting on the side, his firing was still unexpected and an unwelcome shift. “I didn’t take this as a finding that I was unskilled and incompetent. It was just a bizarre one-of-a-kind response to a business situation that was inappropriate,” he said.

So what’s a better way? Would the Golden Rule be too much to ask? If you wouldn’t want to learn via e-mail that you’re losing a job and have 30 minutes to exit the building, then it’s not unreasonable to think that your employees aren’t going to think too highly of it either — and perhaps not so surprising that this made the national news. And bringing in armed guards, as some companies have done, can be completely dehumanizing, when an inconspicuously placed plainclothes security person would be sufficient to protect against deletion of computer files and violent outbursts. (See CNNMoney article.)

If companies spent even a fraction of the time thinking about how their employees would want to be treated in this situation as they do papering the files to justify the layoff in the first place, then we might expect to see fewer of these “Worst Way to Fire Your Workers” stories. And if employees have any grounds at all to pursue a lawsuit against their former employers, then you can bet that making them really mad on the way out the door is not the way to reduce the number of costly lawsuits. Avoiding the humans who have made your company what it is, even when they’re no longer needed, may guarantee facing them much more than you had ever planned during the next several years of litigation.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.