A business acquaintance called me at the office the other day. It was just after 8 a.m. She called to let me know she had been terminated from her job.
Lynda had just returned from two glorious weeks in Jamaica. It had been two years since she had last taken a holiday. She was the director of her unit and when she took over the position, the unit was heavily in the red. There was talk of shutting the doors. Lynda was so determined to turn things around, so committed to her work, that she just didn’t make time for a vacation. Only after bringing the unit’s books into the black did she reward herself with the trip.
On the Monday of her return to work, Lynda encountered a typically busy day and set about dealing with things in her typically industrious way. She had no reason to suspect anything when, at 3 p.m., two executives from corporate headquarters appeared at her office. After all, head office was just a few hours’ drive away and the company had other business units in the immediate vicinity of her own. In fact, the execs were the Grim Reapers, come to “terminate” Lynda.
There is no easy way to terminate an honest, hard working employee. Professionals from the “outplacement” departments of the mega-consultancies will tell you that it must be a down-and-dirty exercise: Give ’em the bad news; relieve ’em of company property such as keys, cards and cellphones; have them escorted to the front door. Permit no time for the “Why me?” inquiry. Above all DO NOT permit them to say a few words of farewell to co-workers. The terminated employee is, figuratively, a dead body. And nobody is comfortable in the presence of a corpse.
This rather common method of dispatching employees, especially managers, highlights a paradox in company-employee relations. When we are employed, we are entrusted with the corporate assets. We are given access to clients and other employees. We are given keys or passes to access our workplaces at any time. We are trusted. We are treated as though we have integrity.
Yet when a termination occurs, the assumption is that the values displayed by the employee while employed will disappear. The formerly trusted employee is viewed as a potential saboteur, a menace to be banished instantly from the premises.
In Lynda’s case, fewer than five minutes elapsed from the time she greeted her visitors to the moment she was escorted to the front door. She was not permitted to remove personal effects from her office. Nor was she allowed to say farewell to her dedicated staff. She vaguely recalls some of the executioners’ words: “You did a good job.” “Turned things around.” “Re-organization.” “Good luck.” From a company’s perspective, it is much easier to terminate in this tidy but heartless way. It’s fast and it’s simple and it renders the victim stunned and defenseless—just like a well-planned military ambush.
Not so long ago, employers asked new employees for their loyalty and commitment. Well, that paradigm has shifted right out of view. Companies no longer promise loyalty or career-advancement opportunities or job security. But they still expect employees to behave as though they do. Coming to work early, staying late and taking work home—all hallmarks of the old two-way loyalty equation—are still in place, but it’s a new equation: If we do these things for the company, then maybe the company will continue to employ us. Or maybe not, as Lynda discovered.
There are, of course, better ways for companies to part ways with employees who, for reasons of restructuring and such, must be let go. Decency, civility and professionalism are their minimum due. People hired for their intelligence and character are also adults. Intelligent adults know how to absorb sudden bad news without resorting to scene-making histrionics.
Anyone who has met the corporate Grim Reapers will tell you it is an experience that is hurtful, humiliating and, in time, hardening. And not just for the terminated. Colleagues of the departed employee are rendered fearful, resentful and forever cynical. The terminated endlessly recite a devotional incantation: “Nobody is ever going to do that to me again.” Wonderfully talented and creative people pledge to themselves to do whatever it takes to stay out of the corporate scene.
And whose loss is that?