I was having lunch with a friend recently and she told me her daughter had been fired (not for cause, but a downsizing). She was given 30 minutes to leave. We both thought that was cold and inhumane. So I posed this question to Linked: HR Resources, a subgroup of the largest human resources group on Linkedin.
A friend’s daughter lost her job and was given 30 minutes to clear out her desk. Why do companies do this and treat their employees as if they were criminals?
I was astounded at the heated discussion that followed – over 40 comments in all (making me the top influencer in the group for four straight weeks). Many of the comments were from HR professionals with experience in terminating employees.
The variety of comments showed that companies are still struggling with this issue: how to treat departing employees fairly and with compassion while protecting the company’s interests. A few people complained about their treatment when they were laid off, but others commended their companies for how they handled a difficult process for both sides.
They Will Steal Company Secrets
The central theme of many comments was about protecting the company:
“…normally it’s to prevent theft of company property…when terminated, some employees copy proprietary information to portable devices and hand carry them out of the office…”
“…I was stunned to find two hand guns in one employee’s desk drawer…that has made me a firm believer in helping employees move out of the office, after termination, quickly and to have plain clothes security officers nearby…
“…people will do an ‘information grab’ on the way out. I’ve seen it with both voluntary and involuntary terms, so I don’t think this risk is without merit…even worse, the employee who seems OK, but goes violent on the way out…the so-called ‘perp walk’ is there for the safety of all employees…”
There wasn’t agreement on the best approach to terminating an employee. But if an employee is treated badly during this process, or if the remaining employees see the same treatment in their futures, it is a bad omen for the company in retaining the employees they want to keep and attracting new ones.
A common thread in the comments was the need for fairness and to keep the employee’s dignity intact. Tone of voice and choice of words are crucial.
Treat Terminated Employees Fairly
A number of comments supported this point:
“…the respect and care you show a laid off employee will only help your company’s reputation in the marketplace…it only takes one or two poorly treated individuals to spread the word that your company does not value its employees…”
“…I think I could have even lived with the ‘but you might steal sensitive information’ explanation had it been presented logically, matter of factly and in a way that said, ‘This is to protect our intellectual property’ rather than ‘You are an untrustworthy criminal…”
“…I have often arranged for employees to return to the office after hours and meet with an HR team member to clean out their space. They can take more time that way and avoid disruption, which is often a bigger issue than theft, as usually IT disables systems quickly in these situations…each situation is different and you must tailor what you do each time, trying to maintain dignity for the former employee…”
What I Think
I chimed in throughout the discussion with my thoughts on the topic. In reality, employees could be stealing while they were still working if that was their intent. Most people just want to be allowed to keep copies of their work product (assuming it isn’t confidential) for their portfolio as they search for a new job.
Touch, tone of voice, facial cues – all these come into play during a very stressful time for everyone. Be gentle when firing someone.
As a number of people commented, find a way to let people come back to get their personal belongings. Some companies ship them, but how are they to know what belongs to the employee and what belongs to the company. Is that painting yours or mine?
As I suggested in an earlier post, establish a dedicated website where those who were let go can share job leads, resumes and just chat about how they are feeling. Having a virtual hangout will enable the group members to take care of each other. Have an HR person online for the first 30 days to answer questions. Then you can let go of the lifeline as the group coalesces.
Losing a job is devastating. It can be made worse when fired employees are made to feel like common criminals.