Tuesday, 22 August 2017 18:00

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

Written by Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD.

Background Check


Every company has workplace policies and expected standards of conduct for its employees. Unfortunately, people do not always live up to those expectations which can result in a unilateral decision by the company to part ways with an employee. Adding to the stress and emotion that an employee is likely to feel when notified of the organization’s decision to terminate their employment, all too often employers also put them through a somewhat barbaric and humiliating “walk of shame.”

You know what I am talking about. You have likely seen it happen at work or even participated in the practice yourself. The “walk of shame” is an outdated management practice during which the terminated employee’s personal belongings are packed up and put in a box and then the employee is swiftly escorted out of the building by security personnel. The terminated employee is treated more like a common criminal than a formerly valued employee, leading some to wryly refer to this practice as the “perp walk.” It should come as no surprise that the impact on the departing employee is humiliation, emotional pain, resentment and often a vindictive urge to “get even.”

If there are valid reasons to be concerned about security, or if legitimate risks have been identified, then appropriate safety precautions should certainly be taken. For example, an employee who is terminated for egregious misconduct or an employee who has access to sensitive, proprietary information should be closely monitored, as should any employee who becomes heated during the termination meeting and shows no signs of cooling off. In these types of situations, it may simply be prudent to ensure that the individual is fairly quickly escorted out of the building before they have time to inflict any real damage to either property or people.

However, the truth is that 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. As a result, the goal of every employer should be to end the employment relationship in the same way that it is typically begun: professionally, with care and respect. Ending the relationship with the departing employee 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, why do so many companies treat them as if they are? The truth is that many (if not most) 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 company profitability, change in strategy, corporate merger or other forms of organizational restructuring).

Most of your employees are likely to be rational and reasonably mature adults. Given this, the better strategy is to have a candid conversation about the business reasons for the decision, thank the person for their years of service and contributions to the company, openly acknowledge the difficulty of the moment and allow them to return to their work station to pack up and say goodbye to their co-workers without an official company escort watching 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. It is an uncomfortable situation that everyone would like to get through as quickly as possible to be sure, but there is merit in treating the individual like the good (or probably at least decent) employee that they were immediately prior to the termination meeting.

A reasonable scenario might go something like this: “[Terminated Employee], why don’t you go back to your office, take a few minutes to compose yourself, gather up your personal things and tell everyone good bye. I’ll meet you back here in 15 to 20 minutes.” If it is possible to have the conversation at the end of the day when most employees have already gone home, that is the most preferred scenario of all. You could even set their departure for a specified date in the future depending on the individual and the kind of issues they will need to wrap up. The affected employee will likely appreciate that tiny bit of extra grace and empathy shown to them during a personally difficult and emotionally charged situation.

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. You do not want to give a terminated employee any additional 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 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 future levels of employee engagement, productivity and retention.

Terminations for Misconduct

A recent lawsuit filed against Target Corporation during 2015 in Los Angeles Superior Court provides a cautionary tale about employer use of “walk-of-shame” practices in cases of suspected misconduct. In this case, a young Target employee with an autism spectrum disorder 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.

In the lawsuit filed by the employee’s mother, the employee was “shocked, confused and mortified,” had no idea why he was being arrested and told his mother that it was “the worst day of his life.” She alleges that the parade into the store—a practice commonly referred to by Target employees as the “walk of shame”—caused her son to commit suicide. She further claims that the practice is frequently used by Target as a way to humiliate and punish employees suspected of stealing. The lawsuit accuses Target of false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and wrongful death. Target denies having such a policy and also denies the allegations contained in the lawsuit.

So What?

The “walk of shame” is a bad management strategy that has inexplicably become a fairly standard organizational practice. It persists in many companies without an assessment of the actual level of risk posed by each unique situation. It is long past time to end this objectionable way of handling employee terminations, regardless of the legal outcome of the Target case.

The solution is relatively easy. It will take just one determined HR practitioner willing to present the business case for making the change to the company’s senior leadership (and I hope that’s you), or just one person with the courage to speak up and say “this is the wrong way to treat people and we need to fix it.” Such a change will go a long way toward building more positive relationships with both current and departing employees—and that’s good not only for the people impacted by the practice, but also for your business.

About the Author

Author Teresa A Daniel

Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD serves as dean and professor of the Human Resource Leadership (HRL) Program at Sullivan University based in Louisville, KY (www.sullivan.edu). She also chairs the HRL concentration in the university’s PhD in Management program. Her growing body of work about workplace bullying and its impact on HR practitioners has been actively supported by the Society for Human Resource Management through numerous interviews about her research and its implications and the publication of two of her books. Dr. Daniel is the co-author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals (SHRM Books, 2016) and she was honored as an Initial Fellow of the International Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and Abuse in 2014. She can be reached via e-mail at: tdaniel@sullivan.edu.

© Copyright by Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD. April 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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