Treating Fired Employees Like Criminals

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.

"Fired with 30 minutes to leave"

Fired with 30 minutes to leave

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.

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  1. I have left several jobs on good terms and always copy my work product when I leave. In my last job, I worked on a resume workshop for law students. I’m now using a highly edited, reorganized version of that presentation for a general resume workshop I’m presenting in Madison. It was useful to have an outline to work with and I don’t think anyone would recognize the presentation as being similar to the one I put together for my workplace. But I can see that some other more sensitive information would be a problem if copied. As someone mentioned, however, if someone is going to copy stuff they can do it before they get laid off (most people will see the writing on the wall). I suppose a company has to take the measures it can take.

  2. I have been self-employed for many years. I was escorted out of a job many years ago and it always bothered me. That was one experience that aimed me towards being an artrepreneur.

  3. Even though some companies deal in sensitive materials and products, I feel they often overrate the secrecy of what they trade in, since their competitors deal in much the same stuff, and anyway, they play musical employees all the time.
    Compassion and humane treatment ‘should’ be felt to be natural and necessary, but the world does not run on ‘should’, as we all know.
    A dishonest grab for ‘secrets’ is largely not what most fired employees are after, but a fair retention of what they have worked so hard on, and what they would need to establish themselves in another position. In short, they need their tools if they are to work again.

  4. Jeannette:

    They are simply afraid. Of what? Bad mouthing…emotional displays…theft…loss of company intellectual property…vandalism…whatever…etc. They also want to retain control of the process.

    On the other hand, when I voluntarily retired in May, the entire atmosphere was relaxed. No supervision, no control. I was allowed to walk out with box loads of stuff, all mine of course.

    After 25 years of service…”We applaud your experience, commitment and initiative in helping….achieve success. Your work and contributions are making a difference.” That is until you walk out the door! Try waiting over 4 months for a final commission check….as your previous supervisor plays a stall game. Or finding out that a promised reduced fee service benefit is being rescinded…as the customer service manager (your friend and colleague for years) doesn’t return your calls.

    Regardless of which side of the fence you are on in leaving the company, they just don’t care. That’s why loyalty is down the tubes for most major companies and people are afraid for the jobs they do have.

    • It’s just sad that so many people have had bad experiences when they leave a company they once admired and respected.

  5. Hmm. Must be touchy subject month over at Linkedin. I’m embroiled in some outsourcing controversy and I’ve noticed several other volatile subjects recently as well.

    At any rate, one thing that has always bothered me was the lack of privacy. All too often it seems as though everyone from the janitor to the manager knows you’re on the chopping block and is just waiting to hear you get called in.

    Seems to me that a lot of the problems could be mitigated by respecting the privacy of an employee.

  6. As a former HR and Learning & Development professional (with 21 years of service with the company), my position was eliminated. As with anyone who initially learns this news, it is shocking, humiliating and so emotional. Our HR Director went over the paperwork then and there and, like Jason said, all I heard was “blah, blah, blah”. I had to call in afterwards to verify what was said.

    I didn’t have to be escorted out, thank goodness, but I can see how it can get uncomfortable. In my group about half of us were released and one woman made some very unprofessional remarks in her anger. She regrets that now but it is too late. She couldn’t even get a temp job there now if she wanted to.
    I guess it all depends on the company. If they are known internally for valuing the staff they most likely will treat them in a respectable manner should they have to let them go.

  7. Here is a subject that far too many people can relate to and far too many companies do not spend enough time thinking about before the actual action of termination. I believe there is a very real benefit and need (especially right now) for an Exit Manager.

  8. Sorry, but you blew it right there in the first sentence: “her daughter had been fired (not for cause, but a downsizing).”

    Downsizing is not the same as firing, and using the two words interchangeably contributes to the perception of downsized employees as criminals, or at least sub-par workers.

    Six years ago I was downsized from a non-profit position as part of a planned “sunsetting” of our business unit. We all knew that we had a “sell by” date, and indeed the unit closed in late 2006. I was proud to leave after the operation had completed roughly 80% of its work, and when I am asked why I left the position I can honestly say that I’d finished what I’d set out to do three years earlier. (Indeed, I stayed longer and did more than I’d initially expected.)

    We were not treated like criminals nor given the “bum’s rush.” Each group that downsized was given a farewell party. Nearly everyone continued good relationships with our colleagues who stayed behind and we now have occasional reunions. I suppose we were a bit of a special case, but I don’t see why that needs to be so. When employees are downsized for reasons other than poor performance, they can continue to be assets to the organization, if handled correctly. Parting on good terms can be good for both employers and employees. Certainly it does an employer harm if former employees are made to feel like criminals and will likely say unkind (if true) things about the employer afterward.

    As for me, although I am no longer an employee of that non-profit, I have been an active volunteer since shortly after I downsized. That means I’ve been a volunteer for twice as long as I was a paid staff member. I think we all got a good deal on that one!

    • Karen — you’re quite right about the difference between downsizing and being fired for cause. However, the distinction is blurred when an employee is accompanied to her desk by a security guard, who watches while she takes as much of her personal belongings as she can carry, and then escorts her out the door. It has to leave a bad impression and raise questions — was the company trying to cover up that she was actually fired by saying it was a layoff? No matter whether a layoff or firing, the employee needs to be treated with dignity. I applaud your former employer for the way they treated your downsizing. You still respect them and aren’t they lucky they have you as a volunteer.

  9. Jeannette,

    While I agree that having an employee escorted out of the building by security blurs the difference between a downsizing and firing for cause, that doesn’t mean we should further blur it by mixing up our language. If the company officially says she was downsized, that’s the correct word to use.

    As for downsizing as an excuse to get rid of “problem” employees who might otherwise have been fired, I think it can work for both parties. Downsizing is often easier for the employer to justify (especially in the current economy) and it is easier on the employee who is let go. The employer can then claim (as many do in any case) that they do no “recommend” former staff, only confirm employment dates. But if they said “downsized” then they need to behave accordingly. Otherwise they not only harm the former employee’s reputation, they harm their own by appearing inconsistent in their policies.

  10. The problem is companies now days take it too far, if you are laying off an employee and especially if you have foreknowledge then why not let them get a head start on putting out resumes? Most employees understand jobs sometimes have to be cut and appreciate the ability to get their resume into the workforce earlier so the process can get started and you aren’t waiting for a week for companies to read your resume?
    In fact many employees may miss opportunities because you were too afraid to trust a person and earn some respect in the job force. If a person is stupid enough to steal then why would you want them back? If a person has the integrity to carry on to the end of term than you would want them or at least feel better about giving a reference. The part that is really sad is that companies expect proper notice if you are leaving and some may just walk you out if you give that notice. Integrity should be rewarded not punished. Business depends on people so why not treat them as people?

    • It should work both ways. Companies expect employees to give notice and then not speak poorly of the company after they leave. Companies should extend the same courtesy to employees by giving them notice and not treating them like criminals and leaving other employees with a potentially bad impression of the poor employee who was escorted out of the building.