Getting fired by email

Talk of job cuts - and there's a lot of it around at the moment - always provides the office story teller with the perfect excuse to regale colleagues with his or her repertoire of sacking horror stories.

Although some are the result of bitter experience, many have become urban myths that are passed around, twisted and exaggerated. There is the US bank, for example, which invited all its UK employees to a smart do at a snazzy hotel. On arrival some were given red badges and others green ones, and directed to similarly labelled rooms. Those ending up in one room - the colour differs according to the storyteller - were told they had been fired, while luckier colleagues in the other room were slapped on the back and awarded with pay rises.

A similar story tells how staff at another institution were invited for a champagne breakfast by their seemingly generous bosses. Some staff found themselves sipping early morning bubbly as they had expected, but others were directed through a door which led into the car park, where they were unceremoniously told their jobs no longer existed.

The larger accountancy firms appear to have adopted email as the communication device for their latest rounds of job cuts. There's no easy way to tell someone they have lost their job, and to be fair to HR directors at the firms involved - KPMG and the deceased Andersen UK to name two - imparting such news by email seems no worse than doing so by means of a letter. Email is also considerably less harsh than some other methods that the office story teller will recount to you, although one wonders what ever happened to the old-fashioned meeting where your line manager and a sympathetic-looking member of the personnel department would call you into an office and break the bad news.

Perhaps staff prefer email. KPMG in particular is at pains to make clear that employee representatives actually requested it as their preferred harbinger of doom.

This method, however, does have disadvantages for the firms. It allows staff to declare to anyone who will listen that they have been sacked by email, adding to the general stock of sacking horror stories to be passed between office staff as they gather round water coolers across the country. It also provides easy fodder for eyecatching headlines in the media.

Although they are now flooded with good accountants vying for a limited number of openings, employers should remember that it is not so long since they were desperately casting around for suitable staff. This situation will inevitably arise again once the economy picks up, and it is then that a reputation of a business as an employer during a downturn will affect its ability to hire good staff.

In short, shoddy treatment of professional staff during a downturn will affect their ability to recruit in good times.

Employees of all organisations should also be sensitive to the current climate. A year ago, many staff at Andersen and indeed KPMG thought they had guaranteed well-paid employment and their pick of jobs should they choose to move on. These assumptions are no longer valid. As many former Andersen staff have found to their cost, there are now numerous good candidates fighting for each available position, and not many of these positions carry Andersen-level remuneration packages.

CVs these days need a considered makeover, and not just a dusting down. After all, there could be something nasty in your inbox.

Chris Quick

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