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Virtual firings: The new rules of the workplace

If getting fired wasn’t bad enough, imagine receiving that message in an email -- or even worse, in a video chat. But as the number of teleworkers is growing, managers are getting more comfortable with delivering the bad news virtually.

Executives get fired every day, but few of them make international headlines. The exception: Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz. In September 2011, Bartz sent a mass email to Yahoo employees saying she had been fired over the phone. “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s chairman of the board,” she wrote in a message titled “Goodbye.”

Observers were quick to jump onto this story, debating who had been more wrong: Yahoo for not firing her in person or Bartz for throwing the company under the bus. An article in FORTUNE that highlighted Bartz’ s firing also discussed the new rules of the virtual workforce, saying the Yahoo board “should brush up on the appropriate uses of various technologies for conversations with management and staff.”

Although virtual firing could seem like an easy way out to deal with a difficult situation, managers must pay attention to how they formulate their message to the employee who’s about to get fired, said Timothy Kane, vice president of strategic consulting service at Dewberry.

“Ten years ago, the thought of doing virtual layoffs would have been one of the coldest, most callous things possible,” he said. “But I think that as we become more comfortable delivering all sorts of messages by virtual means, this is one of the things that will become easier to pull off.”

A manager also needs to determine whether the medium through which they are delivering the message is appropriate, Kane said. “That sort of event could obviously be very traumatic,” he said, “so organizations should think of making that as personal and high touch as possible.”

Instead of an email or a conference call, organizations should consider a more “one-to-one” approach, such as a video conference, Kane suggested. That approach will give some assurance to the employee that the focus is on them and not just a quick and easy way to get rid of somebody, he added.

Making that personal connection is key, whether the employee is teleworking or not, said Cindy Auten, general manager at Telework Exchange. Field workers or part-time teleworkers may not always be on-site, but managers should consider bringing those employees into the office in the event of a termination, she added.

If the firing is not a time-sensitive issue, the first option should be to have that conversation first in a “very serious meeting,” Auten said. “An IM or a text or an email should never really be your first choice if you need to have a conversation with an employee,” she stressed.

What are your observations on this topic? Have you ever fired an employee virtually? Have you been on the receiving end of bad news? And do you see this trend growing as more people join the virtual workforce?

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Jan 09, 2012 at 12:19 PM


Reader comments

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 p curley conn

What would be the least bit wrong about her "throwing the company under the bus"? Firing someone in the field by blackberry or manything of this type is unconscionable.m I would do the same thing in a heartbeat/..

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 Recently Fired

I was fired recently by phone. On Tuesday, my manager had met with the client, but told me face-to-face that he would talk to me about it later. He said he'd call me while I was driving home. He didn't. He called me the next day (the Wednesday before Christmas) that I was being fired, but he only gave me a rough estimate of when my last day would be. I still haven't been told what day will be my last - the initial estimate was "first or second week of January". While it was offensive, it's now comical. I might still be here in June.

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 TC14 Washington DC

I have been told my services were no longer needed twice by phone in the past 12 years, last year and back in 2000. That's what happens in a world where you may work hundrens of miles from your boss/manager, and see them on rare occassions. I was also let go once in person, and I must say that time (the first time by the way) was not handled as well. I have had to fire someone in person and I'm sure if I had to do it through virtual means I would have no problem doing so.

Tue, Jan 10, 2012

I had to do it by phone once and I would never do it that way again even if I had to disobey the company rules and pay for the trip myself (thankfully now I am in a job where I could probably travel to do it). There is no excuse for not doing this face to face. Technology may change but what's the right and wrong way to treat others doesn't change. When I got laid off by a bank, I was also told by phone although that was because I happened to be working remotely that day and they couldn't reach me. By the time I was told, I already knew because 800 others had, and I had been told my name was no longer in the company directory. Odd as it seemed, even though I knew there was a chance I was going to be let go, I still continued working on my project until my manager said to me "You're not working are you?". He was a good manager - the problem was the lousy bank that is no longer around, decided to bypass managers and have HR do the firings directly. Best thing that happened to me because I now work for a decent company.

Tue, Jan 10, 2012

I was fired by a phone call about 15 years ago. I was very upset and angry for the rest of the day as I cleared my things out and left. Got over it and moved on to better things. Learned a lesson and make sure that I keep good records and all email.

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