Corporate downsizing is in the news so often that one more layoff announcement hardly draws notice. But, last week, some creative folks down at the Radio Shack headquarters in Texas were able to add a newsworthy twist to the story.
They fired 400 people…and they did it via e-mail. True, company officials had previously met with employees en masse to let them know that layoffs were imminent. Plus, employees could go to the company’s intranet site and ask questions. (Maybe that was their way of using high tech to create high touch?) Then, a few days later, the emails went out to those who were terminated.
Did we mention that for an added ironic twist, all this occurred shortly before Labor Day?
In news stories, company officials defended the use of e-mail as both fast and private. But there was nothing private about the public outcry that followed—news outlets from Maine to California have pounced on this story, calling the company to task for being “dehumanizing,” “callous,” “cruel” and “chicken-livered.” We liked this sentiment from a Forbes article on the matter:

“The way a company ends its relationship with employees says a lot about it. Some say it’s just as important as the beginning of the professional relationship.”

No easy way, but best practices can soften the blow
In our role as an EAP, we find ourselves working with managers and employees when terminations and downsizings occur. Unfortunately, we’ve gained a lot of experience in this area. We would join the chorus that is proclaiming that e-mail is not the best way to do this sort of thing. While terminations are never pleasant, there are some best practices to follow to ensure that affected employees are afforded the maximum in fairness and dignity.
First, if the termination is based on performance, make sure that the employee has been adequately warned, that warnings have been well documented, and that the employee has been given ample opportunity to rectify the situation. Many employers conduct an administrative referral to their EAP at this stage. Done properly, an administrative referral will resolve and head off more than half of all performance-based terminations. If the termination is part of a downsizing, there should be an announcement ahead of time that layoffs are planned.
If termination is the only solution, whether for performance or for general business reasons, the following steps will prove helpful:

  1. Schedule the termination meeting early in the day, and during the week; avoid terminating employees right before a holiday or a weekend.
  2. Have all paperwork ready. The final paycheck and all severance and benefit information need to be delivered at the termination meeting.
  3. The employee’s manager and a representative from HR should attend so that you are able to cover all issues and questions.
  4. Be brief. Be compassionate. Allow the employee to vent his or her feelings, but do not engage in a negotiation or argument. Plan in advance what you are going to say and choose your words carefully.
  5. Extend every reasonable courtesy to the employee. Give the person an opportunity to say goodbye to coworkers. Should the employee become angry or abusive, don’t get upset, simply escort the worker from the building.
  6. After all questions are answered and all paperwork completed, wish the person well and help them assemble their belongings and leave.

Firing someone is always a difficult task, but following these basic rules will help it go better. We don’t advocate e-mail as a good termination strategy!


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