Don’t play games with termination (Editor’s notes)

Dismissals should be handled with care
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/21/2009

Terminating a worker is no picnic. It’s not fun for HR, it’s not fun for the line manager who has to deliver the news and it’s certainly not an enjoyable experience for the worker.

That’s why employers have an obligation to act responsibly when ending the employment relationship, whether it’s because of economic conditions or incompetence.

After all, work is a big part of who a person is — one of the first questions asked at parties is typically, “So what do you do?” Many people define themselves and derive their self-worth by the work they do. That’s why courts take dismissal so seriously, and it’s one of the most important and sobering tasks that falls under HR’s umbrella.

While there may be no silver bullet when it comes to termination — it’s just not a process that can be perfected — there are certainly plenty of ways not to do it. Being fired by fax, e-mail and text message have all made headlines over the years. But now the HR community has two new examples of what not to do, courtesy of employers in Belgium and British Columbia.

Let’s start in Europe. So Nice, a Brussels advertising agency with 10 employees, decided it had to lay off a worker as a result of the weakening economy.

Rather than handling the difficult decision with grace, it decided to turn it into a PR stunt. It created a website and sent an e-mail to 100 of its clients, asking them to choose which employee to let go.

“It’s really a cry of frustration about the unjust choice that we have to make. We are not responsible for what is happening to us… How do we choose? The last to be hired? The person who arrives late in the morning?” said company co-founder Laurent Duffaut in an e-mail.

At least he had the decency to admit what the company was doing was in bad taste — calling it “immoral and unjust” — but that didn’t stop the company from going ahead with it anyway.

The e-mail spread like wildfire, far beyond the original 100 clients, according to Advertising Age magazine. In five days, the site had 30,000 unique visitors and 17,500 votes were cast.

The top vote-getter was a cameraman who urged people to vote for him. “I don’t want to keep working for an agency where they’ll turn to something like this to send someone out the door,” he said on the website.

In the end, nobody was let go because the company’s financial situation improved. But what message did this send to employees? That the company is willing to play games with their livelihood. And the message to clients was even worse: We can’t manage our business properly and make tough decisions, so please do it for us.

Granted, the whole stunt apparently worked, since the firm is on more stable ground and has attracted new clients. So I suppose some points for creativity are in order. But this isn’t a move employers should try to emulate. Lawyers representing employees would be salivating at the chance to take a case like this to a Canadian court.

The second example comes from Kelowna, B.C., and, really, it was only a matter of time before it happened: It’s the first known instance of a person being fired via Facebook, the online social networking website.

The victim was Crystal Bell, a spa worker who thought the message of termination — a private one which only she could see — was a joke, according to a Canwest News Service report.

“I still got dressed and went to work that day, because I thought she was kidding,” said Bell, who — interestingly — was also hired via Facebook. “I think it’s going to be the wave of the future but, for me, it’s not the human way to go. I think using any kind of texting or e-mailing to let people go is the coward’s way out.”

Bell’s boss defended the Facebook firing — a decision made after Bell skipped an employee meeting on her day off — by saying she tried to phone Bell but couldn’t reach her.

“I just wanted to have it dealt with that evening,” she told the Kelowna Daily Courier. “I didn’t want to deal with it at the shop when other people were around.”

Luckily for the employer, Bell had only been on the job for two weeks, so she won’t have much of a legal claim. But she is right when she calls it the “coward’s way out.”

Dismissal should always be handled with utmost care. Stories like this are thankfully rare, in no small part because of the great work of HR practitioners. There never will be a best way to fire someone — but there are an awful lot of bad ways to do it.

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