Article main image
Apr 23, 2012

Repeat after me: you should never, ever use email to communicate a major status change to your employees.

Or to put it another way, don’t ever even think about terminating anyone via email.

Radio Shack did this a few years ago when they got rid of 400 employees — yes, 400! — but the best of it was how they tried to act like it was no big deal when they got bombarded with questions about “why.” A company spokesperson told The Dallas Morning News at the time that, “It’s a difficult thing to do, and everyone will have a different opinion on how to do it. To be open and have constant communication, whether you’re impacted or not, was the right thing to do.”

Well, as bad as that layoff was, here’s one that might actually be worse: The London newspaper The Telegram reported that, “More than 1,300 workers at Aviva Investors, the insurer’s asset management arm, were shocked on Friday to receive an exit email from the HR department. “

Sorry — just an honest mistake!

Yes, Aviva terminated everyone in the company by email — but it turns out that it was all a big mistake. Ooops!

The Telegraph report  goes on to say:

There was a stunned silence at the London headquarters as staff across the division read the unsympathetic memo – intended for just one employee.

It instructed all Aviva Investor workers to hand over company property and security passes on their way out of the building, and submit all electronic passwords.

The terse communication reminded staff not to spill any company secrets. …

Minutes later staff were relieved to receive a grovelling message from HR apologising for the blanket email.”

“From time to time, things go wrong”

To make matters worse — if that’s possible — an Aviva spokesperson (quoted in The Atlantic wire) tried to explain it all away in a manner as clueless as if he had learned it from Radio Shack.

It was intended that this email should have gone to one single person,” [spokesman Paul] Lockstone said by phone. “Unfortunately, as a result of a clerical error, it was sent to all of the Investors staff worldwide.” Most people recognized immediately that the email was a mistake, he said, adding, “From time to time, things go wrong.”

Let me be clear about this: Aviva only meant to terminate one person by email. The fact that they happened to send out the message to everyone was a colossal mistake and a Grade 1 HR faux pas worthy of more contrition and explanation than this company spokesperson had in him.

I get that this was a mistake; mistakes happen and “things go wrong.” But rather than use that excuse to sweep this under the rug, I would laser in on the real problem here: what were they doing firing ANYONE by email in the first place?

There are those who will disagree with this, but in my world, it is unfathomably, flat-out wrong to ever lay off an employee, or have any major communication with them about their job status, via email rather than face-to-face.

Layoffs ALWAYS need to be done in person

Good managers know this, because taking away a person’s job — their livelihood — is one of the worst things you can do to another human being. People deserve, if nothing else, as much dignity and honesty as you can give them in the process. You only get that by doing it in person.

It should also be handled that way because it’s important for management  to personally confront the consequences of its actions. Mass layoffs done impersonally are like carpet bombing from 35,000 feet. You avoid seeing the impact the decision has on real people.

In the real world, managers have to do tough things from time to time. Sometimes, that means letting someone go. No one likes this part of the job, but for a manager or HR professional, it comes with the territory. Like they say, it’s why you get paid the big bucks.

Doing layoffs in the abstract dehumanizes the process

Letting people go is easy to do when you don’t have to deal personally with the people getting canned. It’s a lot harder when you have to actually give the news to some poor soul who breaks down in front of you because he or she has some other personal crisis going on in his or her life, a crisis that just increased tenfold because you took their job away.

I have always believed that when you are forced to handle layoffs in person, you find that you are a lot less willing to consider doing it in the abstract. And that’s why doing it by email is the ultimate management cop-out. It further dehumanizes a process that is pretty inhuman to begin with.

Informing workers of layoffs by email is simply wrongheaded, coldhearted and dumb. Anyone who considers doing something so personal and critical in such an impersonal way doesn’t deserve to be managing anyone, anywhere, anytime.

It’s managerial malpractice of the first order. And one thing is certain: someone at Aviva Investors deserves to get fired for this kind of massive screw-up. Here’s hoping that if they do, perhaps Aviva will take a pass on using email to communicate it.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!