Civilizing the Termination Process
By Wendy R. Leibowitz
IT PAYS TO BE NICE. People will remember your consideration long after they leave your firm. However, if you’re callous, they will remember it longer still. Look at all of the options—and the consequences. Fire right, and you’ll safeguard your reputation and your firm’s morale.
Given the current economic cooldown, some of your best friends may be let go from a law firm near you soon. Even during good economic times, people sometimes have to be let go because of poor work quality, personality conflicts or their habit of using office time mainly to access gambling sites on the Internet. It happens.
It’s tough to fire or lay off employees, especially in law firms. Poorly done terminations needlessly disrupt a legal practice, causing morale to plummet among those you’d like to keep. At best, poor management practices can adversely affect recruitment and reputation. At worst, hurt feelings can cause someone to sue for wrongful termination. And how can lawyers counsel clients about business strategies and techniques if they can’t keep their own houses in order?
It pays to be classy in all aspects of a business. Here are a few pointers on how to be more classy in the unpleasant business of employment terminations.
Do It One to One
Employment terminations should be conducted personally, on a one-to-one basis. Please, never, ever fire anyone by e-mail.
Two people should meet privately with the person who’s being let go, preferably outside of normal working hours to minimize gossip. Let the person vent about the unfairness of it all. Inform the person, preferably in writing, about what benefits to expect after leaving your employ (any severance pay, 401(k) plans and the like). Explain how to continue health-care coverage and how to apply for unemployment. And if possible, provide the name of someone who will serve as a reference for the person in his or her search for future employment. It’s in everyone’s interest for the terminated employee to get another job and move on with life as quickly as possible. Any support you can provide, such as a letter of recommendation and access to telephone messages from outside the office will go a long way.
Remember, people who leave your firm will talk a lot about your firm. And if they’re out of a job, they’ll have a lot of time to do so—over lunch tables, on e-mail lists and Web sites, to competitors and peers. Going the extra mile to make terminations less painful can make your reputation less pained, too.
Here’s an excerpt from the IOMA newsletter Partner’s Report about a firm that handled it right. Fifty-six administrative employees had to be let go from a midsize firm because of a merger:
The firm’s HR director and managing partner met individually with the laid-off employees before a firmwide announcement was made. The firm also set up an outplacement team, headed by a recruitment manager who was among those laid off, to coordinate training, counseling and support. This team helped place 27 of the employees by mid-May. Among the steps it took were sending bios on laid-off employees and letters of recommendation to 2,000 clients; establishing a career center so displaced employees could look for job leads and work on resumes; creating a binder in the career center with clippings from newspaper classifieds and other job leads; and offering lunch-and-learn sessions on interview skills, salary negotiations and resume building.
Not all firms will be able to offer such an extensive range of support. But at least consider letting terminated employees use their work phone extensions to access messages from outside the office. This will allow them to keep up the appearance of having a job and can make it easier for them to land work—and to say nice things about you. It is a small expense to the firm and pays off (after a while, when the hurt subsides) in gratitude.
Examine the Range of Possibilities
See if part-time, flex-time or voluntary time-off options are possible. When business dries up, some firms seem to think that firing people is their one option for saving money. But it’s impossible to downsize your way to greatness. If these are people you’d like to keep if you only had the money, offer a part-time arrangement or an unpaid three-month vacation. Some people, particularly young people, might jump at the offer.
It does pay to keep in touch and on good terms with employees whom you’d like to keep if you could only afford to. One large Manhattan firm laid off dozens of associates and support staff in an abrupt, cruel manner that was typical of layoffs at law firms 10 years ago. About two weeks after everyone had left, the firm landed a huge client and had to scramble for contract lawyers while it interviewed for new associates. The partners looked like inhuman dopes. The laid-off employees were delighted to ridicule the firm in lengthy conversations. Ten years later, people are still talking about it. One of the terminated employees, who now has his own business, says he will never refer business to his old firm.
Can’t You Think of Something Nice to Say?
Do provide a reference if the person deserves it. There was a trend during the recession of the early ’90s to refuse to provide a reference for fired employees. The basis was a fear of liability from a future employer. ("You said she could type.") Despite one or two highly celebrated cases, however, the spate of lawsuits based on overblown recommendations never materialized.
Obviously, if someone has been fired for gross misconduct, a recommendation is not appropriate. If contacted for a reference, you can simply confirm dates of employment and say that it’s not your policy to provide a recommendation. But otherwise, find someone at the firm who can say something nice about the terminated employee and the tasks and assignments he or she handled well. First, it’s honest. Second, if ex-employees need you for a recommendation, they are less likely to bad-mouth you or your firm.
It’s a Small World, After All
I remember one excellent paralegal at my old firm who was fired the day a trial on which she had worked was concluded. A junior partner, who was particularly clueless, turned to her and said, "Do you want to leave now, or wait until the end of the day?"He later caught hell from senior partners, but the damage had been done. The rest of us were shocked and started circulating our resumes.
There’s a saying that you haven’t lived until you’ve been fired at least twice.Well, if this is true, a lot of folks are doing a lot of living these days. Let’s try to soften the blow by following decent termination practices that respect people’s dignity.
Some have said that it’s "thin soup" to those who are fired with dignity. They’re still out of a job. But soup comes in many different flavors, and the legal world can be small. E-mail and message boards on the Web make it seem smaller still. It pays to be decent, and if you are, word will slowly get around. If you’re not, word will spread like wildfire. ■
WENDY R. LEIBOWITZ (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and attorney who edits E-Filing Report, a newsletter dedicated to electronic filing and information management. Her Web site is www.wendytech.com.
DON’T DO WHAT THE DOT-COMS DID
Sadly, the dot-com industries, which were going to reinvent the workplace, seem to have invented the cruelest ways of terminating people. Last spring, as your bankruptcy practice picked up, the following events were reported by the New York Times (March 18, 2001):
• InfoSpace.com called 20 percent of its 250-person workforce to an emergency meeting at a hotel. Once there, the employees were told that they were fired. Locked out of the building, they had to make appointments to clean out their desks.
• iCopyright.com gathered all 60 of its employees in one room and read out the names of the 40 people who were to be terminated.
• At fob.inc, all employees went to a meeting where they were told some of them would be laid off and they needed to check their e-mails. They went back to their desks, and 40 workers had e-mail messages saying they were being dismissed.
• New York Times Digital was arguably the worst, according to the New York Times’ own article. The Web company laid off 70 employees in January. Several of these people found out they were fired by (you guessed it) reading the New York Times’ Web site. A spokeswoman for the Times said, "It was an awkward and unfortunate circumstance that some of our employees learned of the news from an article in the Times before we had a chance to tell them in person." Right.
If you counsel high-tech businesses, or any company with young people in management who are facing their first economic downturn, explain the importance of treating people decently. You can actually garner a good reputation during downtimes by doing the right thing. Consider this: During the previous recession of the early ’90s, some law firms laid off dozens of young people in December, some of whom had just been hired in September. Some of these firms pretended the firings were performance based. But the New York office of Latham & Watkins not only let people use their work phone numbers while hunting for jobs, it also gave letters of recommendation to all its terminated associates. The letters explained that the associates were highly regarded, but that economic conditions required that the firm let them go. Ten years later, people clearly remember that firm’s kindness and consideration. — Wendy R. Leibowitz