Firing employees enters a new era; From private dismissals to global online audiences

Did the employee who taped her video conference firing – which subsequently went viral – go too far?

To Deborah Brouwer, managing partner of Detroit-based management-side labor and employment law firm Nemeth Bonnette Brouwer, the real issue is not whether the employee should not have shared the tape, or even whether the discharge was justified, but how the employer handled the discharge in the first place. In this world of instant media, employers need to be aware that firing an employee is now often a spectator sport.

 “Traditionally, employees who were being terminated, whether for cause or due to economic layoffs, were dismissed in an office setting with their manager present,” Brouwer said.

“While other employees may have seen a closed conference room door, dismissals of individuals were generally handled privately and in-person. Now, there’s the potential for the whole world to be watching – and employers need to pay attention and adapt their strategies – while holding on to tried and true best practices.”

Remote firing by video conference may once have been the equivalent of breaking up with someone via text, but Brouwer says what’s clear now is that employers now have many channels for dismissal – and the privacy factor is diminishing as the channels grow. That’s just one reason employers need to be vigilant in handling dismissals as humanely as possible.

“Employers can’t lose sight of the fact that losing one’s job can be a traumatic experience for many people. While the new options for dismissal from a distance may seem to make it easier for both parties, we continue to see that’s often not the case,” Brouwer said.

“It bears repeating that firing people by video conference, email or text can create hard feelings where none existed before, and there can be repercussions – as witnessed in the recent viral firing.”

Still, Brouwer acknowledges there can be pluses to remote firing:

• The challenges of dealing with an angry or crying employee are mitigated.

• There is no ‘walk of shame’ out of the boss’s office or the conference room.

• The emotional response to the firing can be handled privately, out of view of co-workers.

The negatives of remote firing can outweigh the positives, however:

• The appearance of callous disregard for the employee and the contribution he or she made to the company.

• Permanent reputation damage to the firing organization – hindering future hiring efforts.

• Increased risk of litigation against the employer. An employee angered because she was fired remotely may start looking for other reasons for the termination, leading to a discrimination lawsuit, or suits claiming failure to provide the period of time legally required for layoffs.

• Risk of workplace violence by disgruntled terminated workers who resent the impersonal nature of the firing approach.

Regardless of the firing method, Brouwer says many of the best practices remain the same from a traditional termination; just because the platform is different, does not mean the usual, sound practices should be discarded. So:
• For email or text messages, consider the tone of the email or text and try to personalize it.

• Be sensitive about the timing of an email or remotely cutting off access to company laptops or email groups – is it the middle of the night where the employee lives?

• For terminations by teleconference, be direct and to the point and keep the interaction brief, noting the termination decision is final. When possible, the employer’s representatives should be limited to the employee’s manager and an HR representative. Although permission for taping should not be granted, assume that it might be and conduct the conversation accordingly.

• Follow up immediately with a letter confirming the discussion and the terms of the termination, including severance pay and benefits if applicable.

• Have a plan in place for recovering employer property and technology—and disconnecting remote access.

• Is the employee working out of state? Be sure to consider legal guidelines for that state.

• Communicate to employees with respect and sensitivity to explain that the terminated employee is no longer with the company. Do not provide unnecessary details.

When is remote termination not recommended?

“Terminating an employee is a difficult and emotional process for employers as well as employees; but as uncomfortable as it may be, some scenarios, such as with certain long-term employees or executives, the more personal approach of an in-person termination is often the better practice,” Brouwer said. “Also, with the very real threat of workplace violence following a termination of any kind, it is imperative that all employee terminations be conducted with consideration of what, if any, added security measures need to be put in place.”