Is It Ever OK To Fire An Employee Over The Phone?

Human resources experts weigh in on a termination practice making headlines.
August 13, 2013

There’s been a lot of ruckus lately over some high-profile firings in the media industry lately. But it’s not because of who was fired—but, rather, how.

Last week, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong fired his creative director Abel Lenz only a few minutes into what was supposed to be a motivational conference call with hundreds of employees of AOL’s Patch news web sites.

Media blogger Jim Romensko has audio and a transcript of Armstrong apparently firing Lenz for trying to take a picture of him during the call. There’s a momentary pause after the, “Abel, you’re fired. Out!” Then Armstrong is back to business, talking about Patch.

Less than two weeks earlier, 45 reporters, editors and other editorial staff at the Cleveland Plain Dealer were informed via morning phone calls rather than in-person meetings that they no longer had jobs with the newspaper.

While a phone call may seem like a quick and painless way to lay off an employee—especially a problematic one—human resource experts say it’s a bad idea. For one, it can make the terminated employee even angrier and cause backlash (especially if done publicly, like the Patch firing). It can also hurt the reputation of the business and kill office morale among employees who still work for the company and feel the terminated employee’s treatment was unfair.

An in-person meeting, on the other hand, shows the employee some basic respect and allows he or she to react and ask questions about why they are being let go—questions the manager letting them go should be prepared to answer.

A study of nearly 1,000 recently terminated workers in Ohio found that those who received little explanation for their termination were 10 times more likely to sue for wrongful termination. “When Winston Churchill was criticized for being too polite in announcing England's declaration of war on Japan, he replied, ‘If you have to kill a man, it costs you nothing to be polite,’” the authors write. “Extending this statesman's wisdom to employment termination, our study suggests that concerns about such costs are indeed warranted and that being polite may be an effective way to manage them.”

Ron Ashkenas, managing partner of Schaffer Consulting, laid out the best practices for firing an employee in a Harvard Business Review blog post last year. The planning process, he says, should start long before the employee is terminated. If the termination is due to poor performance, the employee shouldn’t be surprised to learn they’ve been fired. There should be several discussions and documented actions taken before the firing actually occurs.

When it’s time to actually fire the employee, the manager or business owner should be prepared to answer logistical questions, such as whether severance will be offered and what will happen with employee benefits. The manager should listen and let the employee talk out their feelings.

“Losing a job can be traumatic, and your employee may display a range of emotions, which he might direct towards you,” Ashkenas writes. “Try not to get caught up in responding. Listen with respect and then direct the person towards the practical realities of moving on.”

Read more articles about firing an employee.

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