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Fired Via E-Mail, And Other Tales Of Poor Exits

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

It wasn't the best public relations move the company ever made.

Four hundred RadioShack employees received these e-mails: "Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated." The e-mails said workers would meet with their managers that day at 9:15 a.m. to discuss their severance packages. Those managers "reiterated why the reduction took place and extended appreciation for their employees' service," Wendy Dominguez, a spokeswoman, said by e-mail.

"The bottom line is this: To almost everyone who observes or reads about this, it represents a stupefyingly new low in the annals of management practice," said Ken Siegel, an organizational consultant and psychologist who works with corporations.

RadioShack said in its defense that it had kept employees at its Fort Worth headquarters up to date on the impending layoffs since Aug. 10, when it put out a news release announcing a workforce reduction. Employees were told they would learn about their job status via e-mail. And on Aug. 29 at 8:45 a.m., they did.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 115,000 people lost their jobs in July in mass layoffs -- those in which companies let go 50 people or more.

Call them what you will -- layoffs, reductions in force (RIFs) or firings -- they aren't pretty. But in an era when "somehow layoffs have become an almost everyday event, it's easy to treat them cavalierly," said John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement and human resources consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

This summer, a worker in London learned she was fired from her sales job by text message, according to the Associated Press. "We are a youth business, and our staff are all part of the youth culture that uses [text] messaging as a major means of communication," the company, Blue Banana, a chain body-piercing studio, told a local newspaper via -- naturally -- e-mail. (In press reports, the company said she was hard to reach by phone.)

Peter Storandt, director of marketing for a higher education association in the District, said his firing in the early 1990s is still a thing of cocktail conversation among his friends. Storandt was director of admissions at a Boston law school. While interviewing a potential student, he was asked to go to the new dean's office. He left the potential student (who was none too happy) mid-interview. There, the dean told Storandt that he was being replaced with a computer system that would figure out which students to admit. The job was over, immediately. To add to the shock value, the dean treated it as a lucky break, asking Storandt what he would do with his time off and suggesting sailing in Nantucket.

After a couple of months on unemployment and some consulting on the side, he found a job in admissions in New York.

"I ended up with a wonderful job, but it required my family to move and change schools. It was not a welcome shift and certainly not expected," he said. He ended up with a better salary and better benefits, his wife found a wonderful job, and his children thrived in their new school. "But the whole thing fell out of the sky," he said.

He was straightforward about his job loss in interviews. "It made for an amusing story," he said. It helped, he said, that his direct boss -- not the one who fired him -- was able to corroborate the story and give a great reference. "I didn't take this as a finding that I was unskilled and incompetent. It was just a bizarre one-of-a-kind response to a business situation that was inappropriate," he said.

Many times, those who remain feel the pain of poorly handled layoffs, as well. Dee NaQuin Shafer watched as her co-workers were fired as if they were being rejected for a popular sorority. After their supplies and even coffee machine disappeared from the office, the employees at the District-based news service were gathered into a meeting room and asked to open envelopes handed to them by management "when they gave a signal," she said. After the signal, everyone opened the letters to learn who would be fired. However, the letters were so unclear that the employees started asking each other what they said. Finally, a couple of supervisors called people into their offices to explain in person.

Shafer was told she could stay because her salary was just low enough. But she quit when she saw how many others had been fired, leaving a skeleton crew to handle a ton of work.

The RadioShack layoff has received wide (not-so-positive) attention. "We realize that to some people notification by email may seem cold and impersonal. To those who feel that way, we are truly sorry and sincerely regret any impression that we intended to treat anyone with a lack of respect," Dominguez wrote.

But, she said, privacy was on the company's mind. "Our challenge was this: In an open office environment such as ours, what is the best way to invite someone to this kind of meeting while respecting and preserving their privacy and dignity?" She noted that with cubicle environments, the company did not want to come to people and tap them on the shoulder because everyone in the office would see who was being fired.

Management experts agree that there is no great way to fire someone. The "respectful way is to let someone know in person," said Clay Parcells, regional manager with Right Management Consultants, a company that helps workers transition into new careers after they have been fired/downsized /let go/RIF'd. "No one feels good about being let go, irrespective of if they are being told in person or in an e-mail. They just gain a lot of respect as an employer of choice if it's done respectfully."

That respect can help the company's reputation. Done poorly, employees leave embittered, Siegel said. "They become the greatest unraveler of your best marketing campaigns and go into the community with nothing but negative assessments of the employer and make it difficult to recruit any new talent."

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