How Not to Fire Employees in the Social Media Age (We're Looking at You, Tim Armstrong)
As harsh as it was when AOL CEO Tim Armstrong fired Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz in front of 1,000 of his coworkers for taking his photo during a meeting last Friday, the spontaneous and emotionally-charged move would not have inspired such backlash from remaining employees and the public at large just a few years ago. The apology Armstrong made days later wouldn't have even been necessary at all.
"The thing that's been happening in the workforce in general is the transition from the commanding CEO, locked in a room on the top floor, to a much more open and transparent work force," says Alexandra Levit, expert business and workplace consultant and CEO of Inspiration at Work. "You don't have a trickle-down effect of information anymore, and that's due in large part to social media. Post-recession, we're a kinder, gentler business world, and that action just comes across as incredible cruel."
With such in-office accessibility, a boss's heated moment can have serious negative consequences on employees' reputations and livelihoods. And with today's work force filled with millennials armed with smartphones and social media savvy, any company's public perception can be flipped upside down at the touch of the "publish" button.
Here's a look at how business owners can best let go of an employee in the social-media age:
Do mull the decision. Whether in the middle of a meeting or otherwise, ending someone's employment should never be an entrepreneur's spur-of-the-moment decision. "As a high-ranking executive, you always want to be perceived as someone who is calm under pressure and makes rational decisions," says Levit. "We are at-will employers – meaning you can pretty much fire someone whenever and for whatever – but that's not the reputation you want to have." Levit recommends creating a system to document an employee's poor performance so that you have indisputable proof when an individual deserves to be let go. Additionally, prepare yourself in advance for tough meetings and other stressful situations, and be aware of when your emotions escalate to further prevent any sudden reactions.
Don't make a scene. Public dismissal is no longer a scare tactic that elicits cooperation from a factory-sized staff. Instead, any similar move only inspires fear and demoralizes remaining employees. "It's hard to see it from the employee's standpoint, even though you were an employee at one point – if you're in a company that has no choice but to lay off employees, would you want to be treated like that?" asks Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success. No matter what happens, pull your employee aside and discuss the matter thoroughly in private, clarifying the documented reasons why the firing is a necessity at this time. "This is especially true for Millennials who prioritize company culture over everything else. Though there are so many things that could happen to your business that are out of your control, even the employee made a mistake, it's how you react to it."
Do clarify the protocol. To prevent any employee departure from ever going viral on social media, clarify the company standards in initial contracts, including whether personal Twitter accounts need a disclaimer and who has the authority to speak on behalf of the company online about specific issues. "There are a lot of gray areas – what's acceptable in one company might be completely tragic in another," says Levit. "All of these things have to be addressed, written down and shared actively. You can't fight social media access, but you just have to make sure you're being as open and collaborative as possible, and communicate actively with your staff so that nothing comes off as a surprise – because it will get out." Since word-of-mouth is the strongest form of marketing, Schawbel adds treating every workplace conversation, personal or professional, as if it could be shared by someone anyway. And if letting go of employees who helm corporate social media accounts, make sure to cut off access before that final conversation – in January, the Twitter account of electronics retailer HMV was flooded by disgruntled tweets from newly fired team members to nearly 63,000 followers.
Don't ignore the absence. For a smaller staff, the act of properly letting go of an employee isn't limited to a single, private conversation with the person leaving, but must also include a discussion with the remaining team members. Sit down with your staff to acknowledge the new absence, outline overlapping job responsibilities during the transition and include them in your process for finding a potential replacement. "Everyone is going to be talking about it anyway – especially if the former employee is communicating with people on your team – so you might as well get your message across so that it doesn't look completely lop-sided," says Levit, who recommends doing so the first day the ex-employee isn't there anymore, and on the same day in an extreme circumstance where the exit became an office spectacle. "I know many managers are weary of doing this, but it's going to be the big white elephant in the room if you just brush it under the rug as if nothing happened. Try to be as honest as you can. You don't want people to think it's a random happening, and that could be them the next day. You want to show you had concrete reasoning behind it."
Do ease the transition. Letting someone go is never simple, especially for an entrepreneur with staff members who were integral to the company's initial growth. Don't just serve as a strong professional reference, but also ask your network about potential job openings. "If you lay someone off, they might not be able to feed their family or they have to move back in with their parents," says Schawbel, who was recently asked to serve as a career coach for a company letting go of a team member. "You know that these employees won't have a job, and just to support them in some way eases the transition a great deal." Even more so, you never where your company will be in a few years, and who you'll hope to hire back. Adds Schawbel: "Why not hire from your own alumni network? They were probably a great cultural fit, but the position or timing wasn't right. Keeping connected to people, even if you let them go, is really important."
Ashley Lee is an entertainment, business and culture reporter in New York City.