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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


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