Employees Are Not Disposable Commodities
by Mary Rau-Foster
In this fast paced, plastic, disposable and throwaway world, it is possible to allow our easy-come-easy-go mentality to spill over into the workplace. This employee un-friendly attitude is manifested by dismissing employees with seeming disregard for the impact upon their lives or the ramifications for the business. If an employee makes a manager uncomfortable (for some unknown reason); if an employee doesn’t seem to fit in; or if his or her questions rock the boat, there is a tendency among some employers to get rid of him or her. After all, there are plenty more where this employee came from. Right?
The following is a true story that seems to be typical of the cavalier attitude of some managers concerning the impact of their actions on employees.
Employee Jane returned to her office at 3:00 p.m. after planning, coordinating, and overseeing the move of the company’s new division to new office space. She was very tired, but was most proud of her efforts in planning the space and coordinating the move. At 3:30 p.m., Jane was summoned to her supervisor’s office, where she was summarily terminated. Jane’s boss, Harriet, would not give her a reason, but would only offer that she could not discuss it with Jane now because Harriet was too upset. Jane was not allowed to pack up her personal belongings – that was already done for her. She was promptly escorted from the building. Jane was not given the opportunity to report to anyone regarding the various projects that she had been overseeing, nor say goodbye to her co-workers. She was treated as though she had committed some major infraction that required her immediate dismissal and prompt removal from the premises.
“Well, Jane must have done something wrong to have been terminated. Right?”
Wrong. As a matter of fact, her supervisor assured Jane that her dismissal was not performance-related. The fact that Harriet waited until Jane had completed an important assignment before terminating her would seem to bear that out. Actually, there had never been any complaints regarding Jane’s work performance. It wasn’t her attitude, because she had good rapport with both her superiors and co-workers. It wasn’t the quality of her work, because Jane was very competent in all of her duties. It wasn’t due to poor attendance or tardiness problems. It wasn’t due to a lack of professionalism because she prided herself in being able to deal very professionally and effectively with people on all levels.
Jane held a responsible position within the company’s human resources department. She was aware that her employment was an “at-will-employment,” and, therefore, her company had the right to dismiss her for “a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.” However, there are limitations to the concept of “at-will” status. These limitations mean that an employee can not be dismissed for discriminatory reasons, engaging in union activities, for filing a workers’ compensation claim, or for refusing to perform any aspect of her job that might violate state law. Nor can someone be dismissed if they reported violations of the law or violations of an important policy of the state, such as refusal to commit perjury.
The relationship between an employer and employee can best be described as a psychological contract. It is predicated upon a relationship that exists between an employee and employer, framed in promises and expectations of each party. In most cases, these promises and expectations are not committed to writing, nor are they even verbalized. However, there is a tacit understanding of what is expected of each other. A failure to comply with the “expected terms” of this agreement may be seen as a breach (and therefore betrayal) of contract.
Every employee has a right to expect that he or she will be treated fairly by his or her employer, and that the employer will act in good faith. This includes not terminating employment without a good and valid reason to do so.
The termination of any employee can have devastating effects. It can so adversely affect an employee’s self-esteem and self-image that they may take retaliatory action. Some employees have used violence, either directed at self or others, as a tool to seek revenge and to alleviate their suffering. In other situations, employees may blow the whistle on the company for perceived, or actual, violations of laws, regulations, or business ethics.
Humanitarian Do’s and Don’ts of Termination
- Don’t make a knee jerk or hasty decision regarding termination.
- Don’t presume that you can terminate an employee for any reason and on a whim.
- Don’t disregard the extent of the impact that you are having on an employee’s life.
- Do be clear that this is the only available option.
- Do treat the employee in a humane manner.
- Do attempt to leave the employee with some dignity intact during the termination meeting.
- Do wish the employee well and shake his or her hand.
- Don’t surprise the employee with the termination action. The employee should already know that this measure could be taken and the reason for it.
- Don’t argue with the employee.
- Don’t terminate the employee without providing some reason for doing so.
- Do document carefully the events leading up to termination, including what counseling and corrective actions were taken.
- Do be sure that you have done what you can do to salvage the relationship prior to terminating the employee.
Don’t delay termination, if it is the proper thing to do under the circumstances.
- Do be sure to handle this situation in a manner that will allow you to rest comfortably in your decision and action.
- Do not ever lose respect for and appreciation of the impact that your actions have on other people’s lives.
There are other potential repercussions to companies for terminating employees unfairly, such as low public opinion or perception. Why would anyone want to work for that company? Is there a perception that people are not treated with respect and dignity? How do the remaining employees feel about the “unfair treatment” of one of their co-workers? Can they rest comfortably in their belief that their job is secure as long as they perform their jobs in an appropriate manner? Or will they also be terminated seemingly on the whim of management without a valid reason or good cause?
There is a danger in seeing employees as disposable commodities who can be tossed aside and replaced with ease. There are potential legal ramifications if an employee is removed because of discriminatory reasons. There is a danger that a business may be seen as unfair in its treatment of employees and, therefore, may be avoided by potential employment candidates. Also, there is the danger that current employees will become demoralized, less productive, or seek employment elsewhere.
So why was Jane terminated? She is attractive and well dressed, but she is not the svelte young thing that she was years ago. Was it because there was a desire to replace her with someone who is young, attractive, and does justice to a mini-skirt? Was it because she investigated allegations of sexual harassment in her workplace? Was it because there was a desire to hire someone who would work cheaper? She will never know, but the person who ordered her termination does.
The story does not end there for Jane. It also does not end there for the management team who seemed to so easily dispose of an employee who had willingly taken on assignments and extra duties. The loyalty that Jane felt for the company and for her immediate supervisor was very apparent as she related with pride the growth that the company was experiencing, and her admiration for her immediate supervisor who had risen through the ranks within the organization. However, it seems that her loyalty was not reciprocated.
If an employee is terminated, it should come as no surprise to him or her. If it was performance related, there should have been a history of counseling. If it was in violation of a rule or regulation, the employee should be advised of the rules and regulations, and the consequences for breaking them. If it was attitude related, there should have been a review of the problems and how the negative attitude was affecting the environment. In other words, the employee should be terminated because he or she was unable, or unwilling, to make the necessary changes. If the company is downsizing, or restructuring, the employee should be given adequate notice.
Employees should not be treated as disposable commodities. Managers should recognize and appreciate the impact that a termination has on an employee’s life. The decision to terminate should always be well thought-out. And it should be the only reasonable measure under the circumstances. There should also be an appreciation of the fact that in this day and age, there is a possibility that the person you terminate today may be your boss tomorrow.
In conclusion, it is always wise to heed the familiar golden rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.
Please Note: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not the intent of Mary Rau-Foster to render legal advice. If legal advice is required, you should seek the services of a competent lawyer.