Monday, September 13, 2010

Agencies Need to be Courteous to Employees Who are Leaving

When companies hire people they go out of their way to be nice. In my experience, in order to attract people, companies do all kinds of nice things – they wave vacation rules, give sign on bonuses, at senior levels they hire administrative assistants and lots more. But what about when an employee leaves?

If an employee resigns, companies expect the courtesy of two weeks’ notice – which is customary, but is rarely mandatory. But when an employee is terminated, it appears that most agencies forget all about the courtesies extended on the way in and bend over backwards to be insensitive and uncaring.

My hat is off to Jerry Della Femina for the inspiration of this blog post. In his classic book, “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor,” Jerry wrote about the “floor of forgotten men”. Years ago, when someone was let go, the agency would do them the courtesy of providing an office to use for a period of time. It was generally not their old office, but it was space somewhere within the agency. People would use those offices, often with a phone and someone to answer it. They could even pretend they still worked at the company. It was a nice transition out. Inevitably, after a few weeks the former employee would stop coming in.

It was a nice courtesy. And it just doesn’t happen anymore except for the most senior of executives.

Why not?

I find it an insult that an employee, especially one who has worked at a company for a long period of time, once let go, is often told to clear out his or her belongings and be out of the building by the end of the day or sooner. I have heard many stories about someone from “office services” literally standing over an employee while they pack their office (nice service, huh?). That same office person then literally escorts the employee out of the building. In a worst case scenario, those employees, who the day before were trusted and valued, are escorted out of the building by a guard.

I know of one case where an account management supervisor who had been with an agency over ten years came back to her office after a client meeting only to find that an offices service person was sitting at her desk to escort her out of the premises. There was only one problem. Human Resources had not been able to fire her because she was in a client meeting. And, to make matters worse, when she went to her office, she was accompanied by her client. She was actually told, in front of her client, that she could not pack her belongings and that someone would do it for her and send them to her the next day. The conversation, as told to me, went something like this:

Employee: "Who are you, what are you doing in my office?"
Office Service: : "What do you mean, who am I?"
E: "What are you doing at my desk?"
OS: "It is no longer your desk.  I am here to escort you out."
E: "What are you talking about?"
OS: "You have been terminated."
E: "You must be mistaken.  Get away from my desk."
OS: "It is no longer your desk.  They didn't tell you?"
Client: "I cannot believe this."

She went to her immediate supervisor, who also did not know. They even confiscated her laptop, which was personal, thinking that it belonged to the company; it was later returned, but they had erased her hard drive.

It is true. It happened. And it is humiliating.

The theory about terminated employees and escorting them out (incidentally it does not just happen in advertising, but everywhere) is that it is better for morale if the person is immediately gone. I am not sure about the morale issue, but I know that it sure is lousy public relations.

One thing I do know is that for employees who continue to work at a company after other employees have been “disappeared”, empty offices are an even worse sight and are a constant reminder of bad times.  It certainly is not good for morale. And it is terrible public relations.  The employee, who just a day ago was a loyal and verbal proponent of the company, suddenly is telling all his or her friends how horrible they were treated.  Ultimately, it can make people not want to work at .the company.

I do not believe that this policy is the result of top management. In fact, I am not sure that most CEOs and COOs are even aware that their company does this. In the instance mentioned above, the president of the agency apologized and told her that it was not their policy to do this and he would make sure that it would not happen to anyone else. I hope so.

I hope that all companies will reconsider the unkind policy of throwing former employees out. Aside from the fact that it will undo all the good will that has built up during that employee’s tenure, it is just plain cold. And it isn’t what the business should be about. Advertising is a really nice business. But occasionally people in it forget what it is like to be kind and courteous.


  1. Paul ... The moral of your article, in my opinion, is simply that there will aways be a certain percentage of people within any agency or company organization that just don't give a shit about humanity or empathy, much less sympathy, common decency, and the individual. The key to personal survival, I think, is to remember they exists and always consider the source (my mother, of all people, taught me that).

  2. Unlike most people with a somewhat glamourous and successful twenty-seven career in advertising I have only been fired twice. The last time seventeen months ago. A small agency in the Mid-West. They fired a lot of people that day. All the SVP's and VP's. The let me keep my lap-top until "I didn't need it any longer." Same for the blackberry. "Take your time" they said. This was so different from the global mega-agency where when I was a junior account executive in the mid-'80's my boss (the account supervisor), found out from our Cincinnati-base CLIENT that she had been let go. "Oh Kathy, we're so sorry you're leaving." Of course the client had been told that she was leaving to pursue other opportunities. She had no idea. Even at the time I was appalled. The business of advertising can be so toxic. Why is that?

  3. Hi Paul,
    I have often heard from employees that they suspect they will be downsized, having been given indirect acknowledgment their time is running out. Often with bigger agencies, they are given a review that states they are not meeting expectations and have 3 months to correct unmet performance issues. Many are aware their days are numbered.

    I have also seen what you have mentioned, often with more mid to senior level executives. These are more often political plays that have power grabs as part of the incentive for those making the decisions. They remind me of “Godfather 1”, didn’t see it coming, and didn’t know what hit them. Politics can forget what it is to be civil and courteous, just watch this year’s election campaigns.

  4. In last year's downsizing, I knew my days were numbered because of a redundancy in the department and, reading a number of signals, had even figured out to to the hour when it was happening. I was prepared to leave the building immediately, but, surprisingly, they offered me two weeks to stay in the office, use computers, phones, copiers, etc. The President and the CEO I worked with expressed sincere regret and were quick to volunteer as references. This was for one of the biggest global agency networks. Surprisingly classy way to go. No hard feelings. C'est la vie.

  5. You have simply revealed the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a lack of kindness and courtesy in the industry. You mentioned how nicely agencies treat new employees. But applicants for those positions are treated as road kill--into black holes electronically and never acknowledged, or worse.
    The internal and external "faces of an agency" are now, primarily, HR, intimidated by counsel and CFO's. Not a pretty face.

  6. As usual, you've written a very sharp and timely post. It's awful how agency's treat terminated employees.

    Regarding escorting them out of the building though, I don't think the philosophy is to protect morale. I think it's a lawyer-inspired cover-their-asses move to keep these once-valued employees from stealing.

    Whatever the case, it's shameful.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

Creative Commons License