True Tales: Fired by E-mail

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fired-by-emailBreaking up has always been hard to do. It's emotional and the whole thing can be awkward. (Umm, so you're wearing my sweatshirt -- do you mind if I get that back?) Which is why, since the dawn of the Internet, people have been dumping each other via e-mail. Although it's considered to be the most impersonal and cowardly way to initiate a breakup, it is also, undeniably, the easiest.

Unfortunately, what was once a tactic reserved for spineless exes, has become more commonplace at work, as employers are increasingly delivering the pink slip via e-mail. "It's yet another example of how people use their computer screen to avoid confrontation," says Shannon*, an independent entertainment publicist who was fired by e-mail last month. Shannon was preparing for the album launch of her client, a recording artist, when she received an out-of-the-blue e-mail stating that the client could no longer afford her services. "He just suddenly dumped me over e-mail," she says. "I still get calls from journalists as his album is coming out soon. It's a bit awkward."

While Shannon says she was both surprised and disappointed in her client's unprofessional actions, she still tried to take the high road. "[I called] him at the end of my term to say what a pleasure it was working with him and wished him the best. He was very appreciative and a bit taken aback. I don't leave on unprofessional terms no matter how unprofessional the client may be. It's my way of passing on a lesson," she says.

Kerry Patterson, co-author of The New York Times best-seller 'Crucial Conversations,' says, "It's hard to imagine a situation wherein firing someone by e-mail is the sensitive and effective way to let someone go. Should it actually happen I would imagine that the person using the medium did so out of convenience. It's faster, it's documented, and it avoids a face-to-face discussion which could be awkward or even threatening under certain circumstances. But let me go on record here: It also shows no concern and provides no opportunity for an open discussion. It's hard to imagine that you'd ever treat a person you know and care about in such a cold fashion."

Often, such an abrupt and one-sided method of being let go can leave an employee with a lot of questions and emotions about the termination, and Patterson suggests doing the following should you ever find yourself in this situation:

  • If you are looking for more information on the reason for the firing, "asking for an open discussion certainly wouldn't be inappropriate," she says. "First, ask to talk with your boss in person. Explain that you'd like to learn more about what led to your termination. If your boss is unwilling to hold the conversation, request a discussion with the HR manager. It's actually their job to hold exit interviews."
  • Should you be granted a conversation with either, "ask for feedback about what led to your termination," Patterson advises. "If you are being let go for cause (rather than being laid off because of a downturn in business), it's particularly important to learn exactly what you did and didn't do." Should you be met with vague criticism that you're unreliable or you're hard to work with, Patterson suggests: "Ask for the last time you did something that led them to feel that way -- what you did, said, etc. Stick with it until you learn about the actions which led to your termination."
  • Although you may be angry with the termination method, "telling the initiator that he or she is a coward doesn't work. It might make you feel good for a short while, but it is very unlikely to yield the result you want. Using insulting labels also lowers you to the same emotional, unprofessional level of the person who sent the termination e-mail in the first place, and you don't want to go there," Patterson says.
  • At the end of your conversation, thank your employer for not only taking the time, but for providing you with information that can assist you in your future career, Patterson says. Then "explain that others can use similar detailed feedback -- along with the chance to ask questions and seek details... which is why e-mail isn't sufficient means of handling the termination," she says.

Overall, Patterson says, if you think that your termination requires a conversation beyond e-mail, make sure that you stick to a few guidelines. "Seek detailed information that you can use to help you in your career, stay in charge of your emotions, act professionally, and never ever burn a bridge -- even if the person letting you go is already holding a torch," she says.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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