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Your Employees Are Not Criminals . . . So Why Treat Them That Way?

Teresa A Daniel, JD, PhD
Dean & Professor-Human Resource Leadership Program at Sullivan University
Originally published on linkedIn

Every company has work rules and expected standards of conduct. Unfortunately, employees do not always live up to those standards resulting in a unilateral decision to part ways. Adding to the stress and emotion that an employee is likely to feel when notified of the termination decision, all too often employers also put them through a somewhat barbaric and humiliating “walk of shame”.

You know what I am talking about (and no, it is not the morning after a college fraternity party). You have likely seen it happen at work or even participated in the practice yourself. The “walk of shame” is an outdated management practice where the terminated employee’s personal belongs are packed up and put in a box and then they are tightly escorted out of the building—treated more like a common criminal than a formerly valued employee. It should come as no surprise that the impact on the departing employee is humiliation, emotional pain, resentment, and sometimes a vindictive urge to “get even”. We see the news stories all too often where a former employee returns to the worksite with a weapon, resulting in violence against his former colleagues that sometimes ends in deaths that could potentially have been avoided if the termination had been handled more humanely.

If there are valid reasons to be concerned about security or if legitimate risks have been identified, then by all means, appropriate safety precautions should be taken. For example, an employee who is being terminated for misconduct should definitely be closely monitored, as should any employee who becomes heated during the termination meeting and shows no signs of cooling off. However, most departing employees have done nothing wrong, pose no real threat or risk, and are not in a position to steal important documents or otherwise wreak havoc on your company.

For these reasons and more, it is my contention that the goal of every employer should be to end the employment relationship in the same way that it is typically begun—through honest communication, active listening, and treating the person with compassion, care, and respect. You know, like a human.

Ending the relationship on the best terms possible is just good business, and here’s why.

Terminations for Poor Performance or Job Elimination

An employee does not become a criminal just because the company has decided to terminate the employment relationship. Assuming this to be true, then why do so many companies treat them as if they are? The truth is that many of these people have worked hard and been loyal to the company for years. While termination decisions are often made directly because of a performance issue, other times they are made for reasons totally outside of the person’s control (e.g. a sharp decrease in profitability, change in strategy, corporate merger, or other form of restructuring).

It has been my experience that most terminated employees are rational and mature adults who are capable of understanding the business reasons, especially when the decision is a reduction in force. Given this, the better strategy is to have an open, candid conversation about the business reasons for the decision, thank the person for their years of service and for their contributions to the company, and allow them to return to their work station to pack up and say goodbye to co-workers–without an official company escort watching over their every move.

It is reasonable to set clear expectations about the timing of their departure so that the work environment is not disrupted for too long, but do not ask them to leave the premises immediately as if they have somehow turned into a dangerous felon. Sure, it is an uncomfortable situation that everyone would like to get through as quickly as possible, but there is merit in treating the individual like the good (or probably at least decent) former employee they were immediately prior to the termination meeting.

Conversely, when people feel that they have been disrespected or treated unfairly, they are more inclined to file a lawsuit, engage in a vindictive social media campaign to discredit the company, or, worse yet, engage in violence. As a result, you really do not want to give a terminated employee any incentive to retaliate.

Deal with them like you would personally want to be treated in a similar situation. Even though they may not like the company’s decision, they are more likely to successfully move forward if they feel that the company handled the end of the relationship with sensitivity and concern for them as a person. If your company has already adopted this strategy, kudos to you and your enlightened management for being ahead of the curve.

It is important to remember that terminated employees are not the only ones who are affected by this common practice. Employees who witness a co-worker being abruptly fired and/or escorted out of the building by security guards or HR receive a clear message that they could someday suffer the very same fate. This awareness can have a major impact on their loyalty and trust in management, as well as on their future levels of employee engagement, productivity, commitment, and even on their decision to stay with the company.

The Psychological Trauma of the “Walk of Shame”

A lawsuit filed against Target Corporation in 2015 provides a cautionary tale about employer use of “walk of shame” practices in cases of suspected misconduct. In this California case, a young Target employee arrived early for work one day and was met at the entrance by store security and police. At the direction of two store managers, the police officers grabbed him, emptied his pockets, pulled off his hat, handcuffed him, and then led him into the store, past co-workers and store customers, to be questioned. After being questioned, the employee was taken in a police car to the police department. He was later released and was not charged with any crime. He committed suicide three days later.

So What?

The “walk of shame” is a bad management strategy that has inexplicably become a fairly standard organizational practice. It is usually followed without an assessment of the actual level of risk posed by each unique situation. It is long past time to end this archaic and objectionable way of handling employee terminations.

The fix is relatively easy. It will take just one determined individual willing to present the business case for the change and who is willing to boldly announce that “this is the wrong way to treat people and we need to change it”. What is stopping YOU from stepping up?

The communication value of a reversal in the company’s long-standing practice is likely to be quite positive. An announcement to employees that the company’s termination process is out of step with its values about the importance of its people will go a long way toward building trusting and long-term relationships—and that’s not only good for your people, it’s also good for your business.

© Copyright by Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD. June 2020. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author

Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD currently serves as Dean & Professor-Human Resource Leadership Programs at Sullivan University (www.sullivan.edu) based in Louisville, KY. She is also the Chair for the HRL concentration in the university’s PhD in Management program. Dr. Daniel has a significant body of research in HR with an emphasis on two primary areas of inquiry: (1) counterproductive work behaviors (focused on workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and toxic leadership), and (2) HR’s unique role and its impact on organizational effectiveness (primarily in the management of toxic workplace emotions, responding to situations of workplace bullying and harassment, dealing with toxic leaders, and the management of people during mergers and acquisitions).

Dr Daniel’s research has been actively supported by the national Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) through the publication of numerous articles, interviews, and books. Her most recent book, Guardrails: Taming Toxic Leaders and Building Positive Cultures, is underway and will be published by SHRM Books in 2021. She is also the author of Organizational Toxin Handlers: The Critical Role of HR, OD, and Coaching Practitioners in Managing Toxic Workplace Situations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and is the co-author of two books with Dr Gary Metcalf titled Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal & Risk Management Professionals (SHRM, 2016) and The Management of People in Mergers & Acquisitions (Quorum Books, 2001). She can be reached here

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