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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Whatever Happened To Common Courtesy When Letting People Go?



Truthfully, there is no proper way to fire someone.  It is the end of the year and ad agencies and other companies have been preparing for 2013 by paring staff.  This year, as always, I have heard so many stories that I thought it worth a comment.

I think it is wonderful that no one actually ever gets fired.  They get cut back, laid off, downsized or reorganized out of a job, none of which is their fault.  but if they are not the cause and are victims of circumstances, why are companies (not just ad agencies) so cruel?

                                                   
                                                                  OUT!                                                          

It used to be that when someone was let go, they were generally given a couple of weeks notice (sometimes longer) so they could look for a job.  At an appropriate time they were either given use of their own office or moved to another office for some period of time.  Jerry Della Femina wrote about it in his wonderfully funny book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. (Mandatory reading for anyone who loves advertising.)  He called it “the floor of forgotten men.”  At some point those people either got a job or just stopped coming in. It happens slowly and inexorably, but it happens in the nicest way. 

I always believed that anyone who worked for me should be terminated by me, not by HR or some unknown and faceless executive.  But I guess I am unusual in my ethics.  Today, it is rare for someone to be let go by their supervisor.  More often than not, their supervisor disappears and some (often unknown) HR person makes an appointment and then does the “deed”.  At that point, more than one person has literally been escorted out of the building.  No chance to pack their things, no good-byes; doesn’t matter if they have worked there six months or six years.

It is a terrible way to end a relationship. Over the years I have heard horrendous stories of people being let go.

One theory says it is better for morale to have people quickly disappear.  There is another that says that if terminated people are seen around the place it is bad for morale.  Neither is right.

What happened to common courtesy and allowing terminated people to have some dignity?

If it is a reorganization or a cutback due to shrinking revenues, what is the difference?  People should not be tossed out like they were never there. Being escorted out of a building or told to leave in a few minutes is totally demeaning.  I understand that it is difficult for senior executives to have to face the people who used to work for them..  But I believe that that is the price one must pay to be a senior executive.  The only people who should be made to leave immediately are those who are fired for real cause – gross malfeasance or some other heinous action.

What I don’t understand, is why a company would not want a terminated employee to leave in the best of circumstances, at least feeling as if they were let go in as nice a manner as possible.  That would certainly minimize a lot of bad-mouthing and poor public relations.

14 comments:

  1. Boy, are you spot on. I had an amazing personal and professional relationship with a colleague whom I hired and who worked for me for about 3 years. She wanted to give less time for more money, and it didn't work for us, but to the last day I appreciated her enormously. But the corporate HR people said she had to go immediately - clear out her desk like a thief in the night. She didn't deserve such cruelty and my partners and I were told we had no choice - company policy. And it's a BIG company, employing a large % of this business. She never forgave me and I never forgave myself. I told her how much I appreciated her in many, many ways...and then this was how it ended. A disgrace, which I've never forgiven myself for, or the bureaucrat who insisted on it.

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    1. I don't understand this kind of company policy. It stinks. Someone told me that it has to do with legal, but I doubt it. I honestly believe that most CEO's have no idea because in a number of instances where people were told to clear out immediately, the CEO's interceded and were able to make it nicer.

      Someday we will trade stories because I had one just like yours.

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  2. I have always told my daughters, both very successful execs in Fortune 50 media entertainment companies, "Expect nothing from people and you will almost invariably get." Perhaps a cynical point of view for a father to share, but part of my job is to help protect them from or at least prepare them for the disappoints in life that they will inevitably experience from the failings of others. At the same time, I have always stressed that the shortcomings of others are never an excuse for them not always doing the "right thing" by people - because our name is Crandall, and that's our brand! Bill Crandall

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  3. Paul, I couldn't agree with you more! However, industries like ours have been practicing what I've called for the last decade plus "the new mean." Supposedly ruled by the "policies" Rachel mentions above and other "out of (their) hands" reasons. I've watched tearful (or worse) exits by my share of colleagues, always thinking there was a more humane and courteous way of dealing with people not dismissed for malfeasance.

    I'm with you that many simply cannot face those being cut, hence the "policies." Imagine my amazement to see it happen by phone recently. No one who managed this person bothered to come into the office--they called them at their desk and cited end of year budget issues and said the dismissed person "should understand." Oy.

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  4. @Alicia: I have even heard of people being dismissed by email. It is a sad state of affairs.

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  5. I agree that it's awful, and unnecessary. I really don't think it has to be so cold and heartless. It's quite cowardly and short-sighted of the company. As you said, why not end on a nicer note. I think people understand layoffs and cutbacks, and a little kindness would go a long way.

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    1. @Pam: Thanks for your comment. I think you are right; when there is a legitimate cut-back, people do understand. The golden rule should apply.

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  6. And don't forget, agencies claim to be in the "relationship" business...interesting how they treat their own "family" when downsizing for whatever reason...

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  7. If you were to more seriously research this I suspect you'd find a direct relationship between "size of company" and "dismissal etiquette." In other words, the larger, more corporate the company, the more callous and impersonal the handling of this.

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  9. If you were to more seriously research this I suspect you'd find a direct relationship between "size of company" and "dismissal etiquette." In other words, the larger, more corporate the company, the more callous the handling of it.

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  10. @John: You make an excellent point and I am sure you are right up to a point. The holding companies are responsible for a lot of this and some of them own very small companies. I have heard about this from candidates who have worked at all different sized companies, however. The claim is that asking people t o leave immediately is better for morale, but I would like to see that in an empirical study. Allowing someone time to clean out their desk and say good-bye is far better for morale in the long run than having a former employee spread tales of disgusting behavior.

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  11. Great point you make here! I've seen some of my favorite co-workers leave after I came back from meetings. What's ironic is that people still give the minimum "two-weeks' notice" when quitting. The whole purpose of the two-week notice is so that the agency can still operate as they find someone else to fill, and to take over the employee's work. But when it comes to letting go, seems like all of that isn't needed at all. And no, in my experience, nothing operates well when someone leaves in a snap.

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