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October 28, 1999
You've Got Mail ... You're Fired!
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loyment and Labor Attorney Warns of Risks Associated with Email Firing Practices

You click on your e-mail icon at work and up comes a new message. You open it, only to discover that... you've been fired! That's what Oklahoma's Commercial Financial Services Inc. did recently when it sent layoff announcements via e-mail to 1,450 people before declaring bankruptcy. Is this becoming a prevailing trend or only a one-time nightmare?

According to employment and labor attorney Doug Mooney of Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, attorneys receive queries regarding firing practices all the time, and the question of whether it is appropriate to fire employees via email does come up. But short of extraordinary circumstances, such as a company receiving a court injunction to immediately cease operations, Mooney says, there is no need to give notice of termination, even to a mass group of people, via email. "Even if a company is being forced to shut their doors immediately, it would be wiser to quickly call a company-wide meeting to deliver the critical information. Another option is to have supervisors gather their group of employees to discuss terminations within their own department or division. It still will be a difficult situation, but at least the employees won't get the news in so impersonal a way, and will have the chance to ask questions."

Mooney says that firing employees via email is wrong for two sound reasons: it's not a kind way to treat people, and, as a practical matter, it can lead to an increase in lawsuits against the company. "A lot of employment suits are generated by the way people feel they have been treated during the termination process. Moreover, mass firings don't only affect those who have been let go, but also those employees who continue working, which could have a significant impact on productivity and general morale. If people feel they aren't being treated respectfully, it will almost always affect the business in time."

Using the Internet after a person or persons have been let go, however, may actually be helpful, says Mooney. "No matter how carefully or gently the bad news is delivered, normal human reaction is for people to stop listening once the initial announcement has been made. Which means that in a few hours or days after the news has had a chance to sink in, many employees go into panic mode. They have questions about severance and benefit packages, how to sign up for COBRA or access their retirement benefits. Using email to answer questions and provide information to the employee after the fact may be very helpful.

Mooney also believes the Internet can be helpful at the beginning of an employment relationship, since the Web now makes it possible for human resource directors to do background and reference checks very quickly and for little cost. Such research can include everything from criminal record checks to getting a background on credit history. "While no one likes the idea of someone probing into people's pasts, employers are in a Catch-22 situation," says Mooney. "People complain about invasion of privacy, but if something goes wrong at the work place, such as a sexual or violent assault, then employers are often sued for not doing an adequate job in screening the offending applicant."

So while the Internet can be an extremely helpful human resource tool, it should be used wisely and only if its use doesn't compromise the dignity of employees. "Treating your employees with dignity and respect can only assist your company both in terms of reputation and in employee loyalty," advises Mooney. "In this tight job market, where workers are constantly bombarded with offers for better or higher paying jobs, anything that an employer can do to help engender loyalty is a good thing."

Doug Mooney is a partner with Preston Gates & Ellis LLP. For further information Doug can be reached at dmooney@prestongates.com or visit http://www.prestongates.com/news.

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