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Fired by Tweet: The New Normal

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest casualty of Trump’s Twitter termination tirade. Sure, these brash and insensitive moves by the President garner headlines and move news cycles, but his actions run the risk of setting a dangerous precedent in the world of Human Resources. Getting fired is an unpleasant experience even in the best of circumstances. Even if your organization does everything by the book—gives you appropriate notice, provides you with outplacement services—you’ll likely still be reeling from the news. Now imagine if you found out you were jobless by a couple of hastily typed characters on social media. How would you feel?

Most employees remember the “how” of being fired, not the “why”. Did your manager call you into a private conference room, take you out to lunch to gently break the news, or did he announce your misfortune to the world for maximum impact? News that would normally be extremely embarrassing and closely guarded is made immediately available to everyone in your life: your (former) co-workers, your family, your grade school teacher and even your hairdresser. It’s true that Trump uses Twitter as a medium for pronouncements both big and small: foreign policy, criticizing journalists, retweeting inappropriate GIF’s. His tweeting has set dangerous precedents in many arenas, but from a Human Resources perspective, firing employees via a one-line announcement to the world is the most egregious.

Employment in the U.S. is on an “at will” basis, meaning that an employer and employee are free to terminate their relationship at any time, for any reason. That said, there are a number of laws that protect employees from termination for reasons like discrimination, so it’s not as simple as it sounds (or as Trump makes it look on The Apprentice). There is no prescriptive method for the way that terminations must be carried out, but most HR Leaders agree on the basics, such as:

1. A termination should always be done face to face, either by the employee’s manager, HR or a combination of the two. The employee deserves to be treated with respect and to hear the news directly from their manager or another company representative. Voice mail, email or tweet are never acceptable.

2. The employee should be given a chance to respond to the decision. Everyone wants the chance to say their piece and let off steam, even if the outcome won’t change. A Twitter war isn’t the best way to facilitate this discussion.

3. Terminations should happen only after a thorough diligence process has been conducted, usually involving HR and the manager. This may include a formal performance improvement plan or an investigation into the employee’s conduct if there is an allegation of misconduct. A trigger finger response from an angry manager should be avoided at all costs.

4. Frankly, unless you are in a very senior or regulated role, no one outside of the manager, the employee and HR needs to know the real reason why someone was terminated. It’s on a “need to know” basis and the majority of people have no reason to know aside from their own curiosity. The terminated employee and the manager/ HR should agree on the message that will be communicated externally and internally and then stick to the script. The White House is notorious for completely disregarding this basic tenet. 

This is also true when announcing the departure of an employee while simultaneously announcing their replacement. The former should be recognized for their contribution and wished well in their future endeavors (and be told of the decision before seeing it in an announcement about his replacement!). Most terminated employees would prefer to craft the narrative in a different way to make it seem like the choice to leave was theirs alone. Depending on the circumstances, many organizations are perfectly happy to grant this type of request to a departing employee. No such luck in the Trump White House. 

Firing an employee – whatever the reason – should be done with compassion, confidentiality and professionalism.  The Twitter approach is not only cowardly but also has other detrimental effects. For example, what about the impact of these public firings on Trump’s potential candidate pool? Surely the bench strength of candidates who are qualified for the most senior roles in the U.S. government is already few and far between. Then throw in the threat of public shame and how they could be treated if they disagree with the boss. How can Trump expect to recruit the best candidates? If I were one, I’d run screaming in the other direction.

Who is running HR at the White House? From a quick Google search, HR is part of the Office of Administration but it’s difficult to find any specific information on who runs HR beyond this “Jobs” page that allows seemingly anyone to apply for a position within the administration. Surely there is a competent and ethical HR Leader behind the curtain who cringes each time she opens her Twitter account. By last count, the turnover rate at the White House was an eye-watering 43%. This is a pretty shocking number in almost any industry (outside of retail and F&B) but much more so at one of the most powerful institutions in the world. And it looks like it will only increase…

To all of the HR Leaders out there: Let’s strive to do better! I recognize that we don’t all work for the most powerful man in the world (thankfully!), but we each have our own challenges with headstrong managers. It is part of our role to advocate for and advance the type of culture we want and expect at our organizations.

Don’t let being fired by a tweet become the new normal. Because if we don’t take a stand, we could be next…

What about you? Have you been fired via tweet and want to talk about your experience? Drop me a message here.

Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.

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