The perils of getting fired in the digital era

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It didn’t require much reading of the tea leaves for Bart Teeuwisse to figure out he was losing his job at Twitter. News reports began circulating one day in mid-October that the social media giant was laying off eight per cent of its global staff. That morning, Teeuwisse couldn’t log into his company email. That’s how he learned of his dismissal and, naturally, he tweeted it: a picture of the “access denied” message and a news-feed notification about the company layoffs. It was retweeted 4,200 times.

It’s an old office joke horrifically come to life: Your access card isn’t just malfunctioning; it is, in fact, hinting that you’re about to be let go. As companies search for ways to streamline processes, and do so within increasingly interconnected systems—from HR to IT to communications—it’s more commonplace for employers to miss one important detail in a layoff: letting the affected employee know first.

When Cenovus Energy underwent mass layoffs last month in Calgary, several people showed up to work, only to find they were unable to access certain applications within Cenovus’s internal computer system. They received the news formally soon after.

Cutting computer access early protects the company from things such as internal documents getting leaked to a competitor. If only it didn’t appear so heartless, like breaking up with a boyfirend via text. Cenovus spent the rest of the day apologizing on Twitter for their blunder, and later issued a statement on Facebook, concluding with: “We wanted to make this difficult process as dignified and respectful as possible, and we’re sorry if this mistake caused additional stress for our staff on an already difficult day.”

“If your employees were trustworthy up until today,” says Cissy Pau, a principal consultant with Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting, “why would you treat them like criminals when you let them go?” Pau remembers working years ago with a company going through a major downsizing. She had to help plan for each employee being let go: at what time, in what room, and where they could meet out-placement councillors. Windows were blocked off so no one could see inside. The IT department also had a list to streamline the process from the technical end. “It was like we brought in the SWAT team that day,” she says.

But in today’s more flexible workplace environment, that’s getting complicated for mass layoffs, especially with fewer human hands on deck. Research from Oxford University and Deloitte pegs a 90 per cent chance that human resources administrative positions will be automated within the next 20 years. And even an HR SWAT team would have trouble getting a hold of telecommuters and those working off-peak hours at the same time. Twitter tried to reach Teeuwisse to tell him the unfortunate news over the phone. Alas, that message went to his voicemail—“a side effect of WFH [working from home],” Teeuwisse tweeted. “HR can’t wait for you to come in.”

The companies don’t mean any harm, but “it’s operationally dysfunctional,” says Nita Chhinzer, a professor at the University of Guelph who specializes in downsizing practices. “It’s a matter of balancing the sheer scale of these exits.” It’s also a double-edged sword for managers, Chhinzer adds: If companies revoke access too early, it’s a problem. If they don’t do it early enough, that, too, can be a PR disaster—as seen by HMV’s social media blunder. During a round of cuts in 2013, one young employee with access to the company Twitter account live-tweeted the layoffs. “There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution of loyal employees who love the brand #hmvXFactorFiring,” the official @hmvtweets account said. That tweet was followed soon after by: “Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’ ” HMV was a social media laughingstock before they could get their account back.

Even on a smaller scale, things can go awry. When the coach of a Bosnian professional soccer team visited his team’s Facebook page after a loss in late September, news of him being fired was at the top of the feed. Whether it was a snub from ownership or simply the team’s social media hire getting the word out too early, the fired coach was quick to comment in the Facebook thread, writing: “THANKS FOR LETTING ME KNOW.

“We spend a lot of time talking about attraction and retention of staff,” Pau says. “Our message to clients is how you treat employees in bad times is a truer sign of that company’s character than how you treat them in good times.”