Skip to comments.Most Companies Let People Go without Ever Saying 'You're Fired'
Posted on 03/24/2004 11:48:00 AM PST by Willie Green
For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.
Mar. 24 - Every Thursday, millions tune in to watch Donald Trump squint, purse his lips, and with a swoop of a stubby finger, utter the catch phrase of the day: "You're fired!"
The words that punctuate each episode of "The Apprentice" TV show are unambiguous, blunt and final.
They're also largely fiction.
Fear of lawsuits has made the fantasy firing mostly obsolete. Trump himself, hardly Mr. Sensitivity, says he rarely uses the term in real life, although he told Newsday he finds it "succinct and beautiful."
Instead, many companies have adopted more surreptitious ways to get rid of unwanted employees. Human-resources experts call it "managing out," a way to nudge an employee out the door while also minimizing legal exposure. Sometimes, it involves making a worker's job so miserable he'll quit; other times, it may mean building an airtight cause for a firing -- even if the cause is bogus.
Is your job in jeopardy?
Your office was moved to a storage closet. You've gotten stuck with the worst assignments. Your boss avoids eye contact. You've just received a stunningly bad performance review.
You're probably on your way out, says Cynthia Shapiro, a Seattle consultant and former human-resources executive. She knows the tactics because she used them. Now she counsels employees on how to recognize if they're targeted for removal.
Some employees are at greater risk.
"Layoffs provide a safe forum for cleaning house without fear of exposure," Shapiro says. "For most companies, that's too tempting to pass up."
Here are some reasons you may be targeted:
You're a troublemaker
You've talked badly about the company, are hard to work with, have a bad relationship with your boss or simply don't fit in.
Companies usually have a secret list of employees they wouldn't mind losing, as well as a list of those who are indispensable. In the case of a layoff, "If your boss hasn't pulled you aside to put your mind at ease, you are not safe," Shapiro says.
Perhaps you earn too much, filed a workers' compensation claim or had a medical or disability leave within the past year. Retaliatory firings are illegal, but "many times, layoff lists include employees who have cost the company money," Shapiro says.
In her 13 years as a human-resources executive and consultant in San Francisco and Seattle, Cynthia Shapiro has pushed out unwanted employees using a string of methods: setting impossible goals, giving problem workers the clients no one else wants, taking them off a project they love, or surprising them with a bad performance review.
Most of the time they quit, never knowing that their exit was orchestrated.
"It's an art form, really," Shapiro says matter-of-factly.
She helped move out one employee, a hardworking guy liked by his co-workers but not his supervisor, by arranging a business trip on the day he was to compete in a surfing contest.
"He threw a fit, and we were able to let him go for insubordination."
She forced out another, a talented woman who bad-mouthed the boss to a client, by giving her the worst assignments and cutting her budget.
Things aren't what they seem
On the surface, managing out can look like a normal disciplinary action. In both, employees are told they need to improve by a set date or face consequences. But while a straightforward correction plan, which often involves extra training or even mentoring, is designed to help the employee keep his job, surreptitious managing out ensures that he won't.
Consider the case of Earl Strei, a 57-year-old pharmaceutical salesman from Bellevue.
In the early 1990s, Strei was running the Northwest territory for a subsidiary of Illinois-based Baxter Healthcare. The local economy was in a slump; customers weren't buying. His new bosses -- he'd had a lot of them over his nearly 30-year career -- weren't interested in why sales were slow.
They placed him on what was euphemistically known as a "performance program." Company insiders called it the kiss of death, since it included workloads and sales quotas that were impossible to meet. It was a systematic way of eliminating unwanted workers, according to employee affidavits filed in federal court in Seattle.
"(Baxter) used the performance program as an excuse to terminate people," Darlene Fournier, a top saleswoman, said in court papers. She resigned rather than go through the program. "It was totally unrelated to performance."
Strei, ever the optimist, figured if he worked hard enough, he could meet his quotas. Over two months, the pressure from his supervisors mounted. They scrutinized his expense reports and insisted on knowing his whereabouts. They wanted guarantees on future sales. Strei said some of his loyal customers helped by buying more, but it wasn't enough.
On Jan. 11, 1994, his bosses summoned him to a room at the Sea-Tac Marriott. They told him he'd failed to meet his quota, so the company was letting him go.
"I said, 'Is there a severance package?' They said, 'No." I turned and left the room. I just walked away."
In the cab ride home -- he had to leave his company car at the hotel -- Strei's pain and anger boiled.
"I was a good guy, and they'd done me wrong. It was terrible, shabby, unpleasant."
The supervisors' strategy ultimately backfired; Strei sued Baxter Healthcare for age discrimination and eventually won a large sum. Baxter declined to comment for this story.
But Shapiro says managing out is a successful tactic when done skillfully.
One of her clients, a combative young construction manager, had no idea why his employer moved his workstation into the hallway. But he knew he didn't feel valued, and he was angry enough to quit.
"They didn't want him to get his work done," she says. "They didn't want him to feel comfortable."
Then there was the gossipy young sales rep who was frustrated when her employer began piling work on her. She assumed she was being tested to see if she could handle more responsibility. In truth, her supervisors thought that her negativity would infect the company culture, and they were setting her up to fail. After a bad performance review, she quit.
"If you're a company trying to avoid unemployment benefits or a severance payment, I suppose you would do it that way," says Janice Clusserath, a former human-resources executive from Redmond. "But a company that's reputable and cares about its employees wouldn't do that."
Instead, the employer typically explains where the worker is failing and sets up a probation program that may include more job training and coaching. If he hasn't improved within a set time, he's terminated.
"I've never, ever said, 'You're fired," " Clusserath says.
In theory "managing out," whether straightforward or sneaky, isn't even necessary.
Like most of the country, Washington is an at-will employment state. This means companies don't need a reason to fire someone who isn't protected by Civil Rights laws, certain state statutes or employment contracts.
"You can be fired if the boss doesn't like your shoelaces," says Kelby Fletcher, a Seattle lawyer who represents workers in employment cases. "I get a lot of calls from people who lose their jobs. Most of the time, there's not a whole lot you can do."
But few want to risk a successful discrimination case, which brings a median award of $200,000 and possibly much more, according to Jury Verdict Research. Thus, workplace discrimination suits have increased more than 2,000 percent since 1970, according to lawyer Steven Sack, the aptly named author of "Getting Fired." They account for a fifth of all civil suits filed in the United States.
"Companies are scared to death to tell employees the truth," Shapiro says. "If you give employees a little bit of ammunition, they're going to run to the nearest lawyer."
This is one reason the magic phrase "you're fired" is so rare.
In many cases, claims are filed not because the worker was fired, but because of how the worker was fired.
The aim is to avoid hurt feelings, something Trump doesn't worry about as the shamed contestants drag their suitcases out of his building in tears.
"How you treat them as they're walking out the door will determine if any litigation will follow," says Clusserath.
That was certainly the case with Strei, the pharmaceutical salesman for Baxter Healthcare.
"They didn't respect me. I was just almost disposable."
After co-workers, customers and even Baxter's former vice president of HR testified on his behalf, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Tanner awarded Strei $1.2 million for lost wages and punitive damages.
Strei is 68 today and lives in La Quinta, Calif., with his wife, Barbara. Despite living in comfort near sun-washed golf courses, he is still pained by the firing.
Recalling the cab ride home 10 years ago, thinking of how he'd break the news to his wife, picturing his grim-faced bosses in their suits, Strei begins to sob.
"If they had respected me and my customers, if they had given me a lunch and a gold watch, there wouldn't have been a lawsuit."
WHAT TO DO WHEN THE WRITING'S ON THE WALL
Start looking for work
"It's always easier to find a job when you have one," Shapiro says. "Psychologically, companies are most interested in candidates other companies also want. If you're wrong and get another job offer, your company can always make a counter-offer to keep you. If you were right, you've just accomplished a seamless transition and saved your career momentum."
Make up with the boss
"A boss will never get rid of an employee who can make them successful," Shapiro says. "Do everything you can to make him or her look good. At the very least, you greatly increase your chances for a stellar reference."
Be a team player
"Companies equate being positive with success, so try to be as openly positive as possible. Being of service will make you look like the ideal, indispensable team player."
In other words, striaght white males under 55.
All perfectly good reasons to terminate someone.
Companies usually have a secret list of employees they wouldn't mind losing, as well as a list of those who are indispensable.
This Shapiro lady is clearly a hack. I've consulted companies on such issues for as long as she has and have never encountered any such "list". Sure, managers know who wouldn't be missed if they never showed up again, but "secret lists" are for the tinfoil hat crowd.
My guess is this lady is a friend of the writer and wanted her name out there. "Consultants" need to put food on the table, too, you know.
I also love how she discusses "managing out" as an "art form". Please.
In other words, striaght white males under 55.
Darn. That was going to be my comment.
Clue One that you've been fired.
Can you hear the drums?
My boss told me this Executive Chair was a perk, but I'm not sure whether I believe him.
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