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Is It Okay To Fire Someone Over the Phone?

Yahoo fired CEO Carol Bartz yesterday, and how it went down has everyone talking.

Bartz sent a company-wide "goodbye" email claiming she was fired over the phone. Not in person by a real human being, over the phone. And she's the CEO!

Well, at least she can be thankful that she wasn't fired by email. She didn't show up to work one morning to find the building locked or her personal access denied. She wasn't ushered into a conference room to have an Up In the Air-like third party contractor do management's dirty work. We'll need your I.D. badge, you don't need to work the rest of the day, I can't answer your questions. Good night, and good luck. Wait, wrong movie.

The sad truth is that technology is making the act of firing people way too easy and way too impersonal. Email, Facebook, Twitter have become walls companies can hide behind to avoid the incoming (questions, shock, tears). Firing an employee via electronic means is still a subject of debate but it's not an unheard-of practice anymore in our modern work culture. More than a few people who have lost their jobs in the Great Recession are probably thinking, "Well, at least Carol Bartz got a phone call from a real person she knows personally, which means she could ask questions and expect a real-time response. She doesn't have to spend the next few years asking herself, 'why?'"

Not to say I don't feel for Carol Bartz; getting fired is one of life's top ten worst moments for anybody, and to have it happen on a public stage only adds to the trauma. Most likely, she'll get a very nice severance package and she'll move on to another CEO gig somewhere. She'll do okay. But as business journalists express interest, shock and amazement over this alleged and very-public case of "firing by phone," they might also explore the larger trends at play here: Are "firings over fiber-optical" a good thing for the modern workplace? What impact are impersonal dismissals having on the average employee's psyche in this terrible recession, and how can managers ever hope to re-create a sought-after sense of employee loyalty when the firing process has become so depersonalized?

To me, these are the real, and very hard, questions. For the record, I don't think it's ever okay to fire someone by email, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, or any other modern technology. A phone call is sometimes okay, depending on the circumstances (long distances, for example). But even then, it seems like someone should be able to deliver the news personally.

The occasional hot-under-the-collar employee could pose a real threat to management in an exiting situation, but the vast majority of employees will probably just sit there, shocked, even if they suspected it was coming. They deserve a face-to-face meeting with someone they know; they deserve to know a little bit about the "why."

In the Great Recession, how a company fires has become more important than how it hires. Forget hiring managers; maybe companies should start hiring "firing managers" to re-personalize the exiting process. Sure, employees would know the jig is up as soon as they see this grim reaper of the workplace walking down the hallway with the boss, but at least the boom is being lowered in person by people they know. In this day and age, that counts for something.


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