A Dignified Firing | Author: Susan Heim
A Dignified Firing
Layoffs, firings, downsizings and corporate restructurings can all lead to the same outcome: job losses. Organizations undergo this unpleasant cleanse for many reasons. COVID-19 has been the predominant reason this year. The lockdown and subsequent slowdown in business forced many employers to send employees home, and some have not been recalled. Another more traditional reason is to reduce operating costs and increase profitability to improve the company’s value. Sometimes, layoffs occur to grow productivity by replacing people with more efficient equipment and automation. A company can also restructure for strategic reasons, moving services and entire departments to outsourced, off-shore locations. Such are the realities of operating a business. Consequently, staff firings come as part and parcel of the equation.
Firings are an unpleasant business under any circumstance. They impact everyone in the organization. Those delivering the news, those affected, and the ones left behind will not escape the stench of indignation that follows. Even when employers do it with foresight, planning, openness and care, someone will get hurt. So what is the best way to handle this? Is a dignified firing even possible?
Ask an employment lawyer and you will quickly learn that this should be the only way to fire an employee. When you make the decision to disrupt someone’s life with a layoff or termination, not treating them with dignity and the utmost compassion can cost you dearly in court.
The Undignified “Frog March”
Over the years, the quest for efficiencies led corporate teams to streamline many operational functions. Unfortunately, some carried this through to HR functions, completely forgetting that they were dealing with human feelings and emotions. In the army, when an employee handling sensitive information gets fired, they are marched out without notice and under guard. They cannot say their goodbyes or collect personal belongings. Corporations adopted this “frog march” for themselves, as standard operating procedure when terminating employees. It is surgically clean.
The effects of such firings came under close scrutiny by CBC Radio in a documentary on their show, The Sunday Edition. It starts out with a powerful quote, “The only thing they leave out is the handcuffs“.
Frog marches are the most humiliating and heartless ways of firing employees. It can have the opposite effect of what a corporation may be trying to achieve. It can scar those left behind and lead to negative productivity and poor staff morale. Often, they end with costly lawsuits. This is not how any organization should manage a firing.
COVID-19 has put many employers in a tough spot. The federal government introduced wage subsidy programs to help you carry payroll expenses to avoid layoffs. In addition, the provincial government introduced amendments to employment laws to help you legally place staff on temporary layoff, if you need to. However, this does not give employers carte-blanche to send “undesirable” employees home on an extended and indefinite layoff, only replace them with someone new! The law is quite clear about the differences between temporary layoffs and terminations, along with your notice and severance obligations for the latter.
If the pandemic has forced your hand to make difficult decisions about your staffing situation, consult an employment lawyer to remain on the right side of the law. Frustrating employees on layoff with unclear recall dates and leaving them in the dark about their employment status is not in keeping with the spirit of the law.
Managing A Firing
We advise CEOs considering terminations to start out with good planning, followed by sufficient time and resources for execution. First, closely examine the list of affected individuals. Think of them as people and not numbers on a spreadsheet. Some should be completely off-limits. This includes expectant mothers, those on maternity and sick leave and those close to retirement. While they might be at the top of your list for elimination off, they are your most vulnerable employees and it would be a disingenuous thing to do. Moreover, the legal challenges that accompany those types of layoffs can become difficult and very expensive.
Next, obtain legal advice on severance packages to make them as generous as possible. Unless you meet the high burden of proof for a for-cause dismissal that also includes willful misconduct, your severance packages must represent a fair financial bridge for your employees, until they find other jobs. The law expects this of you.
Do not get trapped into paying out the minimum. In Ontario, a set of judge-made common laws protect employees for fairness. They require terminations packages to reflect the seniority and circumstances of the individuals you let go. Most employers address this matter rather inadequately. Invariably, they culminate in wrongful dismissal lawsuits.
In fact, the best send-off you can give your laid-off employee is an offer of help, through your own network, to get them a job elsewhere. However, this is not always practical, and it can be tough when the cutbacks affect lots of people.
Accordingly, the next best thing you can bring to the table is a budget for outplacement services in the severance package to help the employee along in the next phase of their career. Your laid-off employee would benefit most from personalized career transition services. They can be customized for cost-effectiveness for junior staff and limited budgets. And in the case of larger group layoffs, our career coaches can effectively deliver custom-designed group sessions, both on or off-site.
Employees Duty to Mitigate
There is an important reason to consider including outplacement services in your severance packages. Your laid-off employee has a legal duty to mitigate job loss by actively seeking employment. This reduces your liability in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. However, if you are hit by such a lawsuit, then how do you prove the employee failed to mitigate?
The answer is a cleverly designed outplacement package. If you pay for it, then you have the right to this visibility. Equity’s career coaches work with both employers and your departed employees as non-adversarial partners, even while representing your interests.
Finally, take the time to communicate and manage each termination with compassion, one-on-one. This is where the practicalities of hiring an outside firm to execute staff terminations become beneficial. Letting staff go can be emotionally draining on HR and other managers tasked with carrying them out. They may have established relationships with the affected employees. Therefore, engaging an impartial third party to complete the process for you can ensure your business continues to operate as normally as it can during this turbulence.
We maintain that companies can manage a dignified layoff. What it takes is progressive thinking, compassionate leadership and patience.
Susan Heim is the president of Equity Career Transition and Outplacement Services, offering personalized coaching services for individuals in their quest for the perfect job and career. Equity also provides cost-effective outplacement services for organizations, large and small, in both the private and public sectors.