You’re fired LOL: Why it’s not cool to be sacked by text or email

A US worker was fired by conference call last week. Is there any right way to deliver the bad news?

Photograph: Take 2/Brand X/Getty

Photograph: Take 2/Brand X/Getty


‘You’re fired!” is the familiar climax to almost every episode of The Apprentice. But the unlucky contestants competing for a job or investment from Donald Trump or Alan Sugar aren’t losing their jobs. They’re just being booted off a television show.

Last week the expression was used very publicly for real by Tim Armstrong, chief executive of AOL, the multinational media company. Armstrong was in the middle of giving a speech about future cutbacks. Several hundred staff were listening in from other locations when he became irritated by Abel Lenz, his creative director.

Lenz was taking photographs of the meeting; apparently, he frequently posted such company images on his Twitter account. In the middle of his speech Armstrong saw Lenz with his camera.

This is what he said, as about 1,000 staff listened: “Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you’re fired. Out!” Then he continued with his speech. Armstrong later apologised – after the audio clip went viral – but Lenz remains without a job.

Fired, laid off, made redundant, let go, sacked, contract not being renewed: no matter how it’s phrased by an employer, the outcome for the employee is the same – they no longer have a job. But how that news is imparted varies.

In some US companies employees are not even told in person. That happened at the Plain Dealer newspaper, in Ohio, last week, when it laid off a third of its staff. Notice came via an unexpected email late in the evening saying that employees should expect a call between 8am and 10am the next day. It would let them know if they had been “separated from employment”, as the company described it.

It seems obvious that treating people with dignity and respect – such as taking the time to inform them in person – is the least an employer can do. Everything else is being taken away from the employee. Yet firing people by email or phone is now common in the US. Even sacking by text message is not unheard of.

Lenz was fired, seemingly on a whim, because his employer didn’t want him to take photographs of a company talk. Most employees who lose their jobs fall into one of two categories. Either they have done something that merits being fired or the company needs to downsize, to cut costs.

It’s not too hard to figure out the things that will get you fired. Turning up drunk or under the influence of drugs. Stealing company property. Dishonesty in any form. Sexual harassment. Prolonged absenteeism without a medical cert. Publicly bad-mouthing your boss, colleagues or organisation. Using company resources to promote your private business. Continually surfing the web on company time: spending mornings watching porn, doing your shopping online, updating your social-media accounts and generally avoiding work.

There was “Developer Bob”, an American employed by Verizon, who outsourced his job as a coder to someone in China, paid them a fraction of his salary, and sat in his office watching cat videos and looking at Facebook until he was finally found out, earlier this year. You could call it Tom Sawyer for the digital era, or call it cheating your employer. Either way, Developer Bob was fired.

Things that you can no longer get fired for (in most western countries) are: being pregnant, being gay or of a certain age, being a particular race or gender, or having a disability. In theory, anyway. Earlier this summer the Russian journalist Anton Krasovsky, a news anchor, came out live on air. “I’m gay, and I’m just the same person as you, my dear audience, as President Putin, as Prime Minister Medvedev and the deputies of our Duma,” he announced. When the broadcast ended he was fired by text message.

Probably the highest-profile firing in the US this year was that of the celebrity chef Paula Deen, who had three shows on the Food Network cable TV channel and is the author of many cookbooks. She made what a lawsuit defined as “racial slurs” about African-Americans, and has since been very publicly dropped by the network.

Ironically, people don’t often seem to get fired for simply not being good at their jobs. Most commonly it’s down to numbers and costs, and trying to run the same organisation with fewer people. Payroll is the single biggest cost for most businesses.

Often, the more you’re paid the more likely it is that, when times are lean for the company, some accountant will be doing the maths in a way that will not favour you. It’s probably the only democratic aspect of a round of firings – not that that is much consolation if you are one of that number.

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