Firing with dignity: In defense of the immediate escort

Earlier this week, Chris Dixon (blog|twitter) wrote about firing from a startup. I’ve never worked in a start-up. I’ve also never ran a company or fired anyone. However, I have been fired from an established mature company. In the comments I shared my experiences on being fired and how I felt that being escorted out the door and not being allowed to say goodbye to my coworkers actually added dignity to the process. Another commenter, Phillip Rhodes disagreed. I wish to expand upon my thoughts on the matter here.

This is the first of a two part series. In this part I will talk about my experiences at an organization where coworkers of mine were fired. In the second I will talk about the time I was fired.

One of my first jobs was at a medium sized local ISP. It was not a perfect company by any means, but I learned a lot there, and my time there shaped my opinions about many things including my belief that it is in the fired person’s best interest to be immediately escorted out the door.

Several people were let go during my tenure at this company. There was one period of layoffs due to a lost client. However, most were firings due to performance and there was only one I’d argue as being an outright mistake. I believe that some level of escorting was involved in all of them, but I only witnessed the immediate aftermath of one.

The one I witnessed was my boss. I had at this point risen to the rank of Unix/Midrange administrator. Two senior unix admins gave notice recently, and two more were brought on. One was to be boss of myself and the other new hire. It quickly became apparent that he was not a good fit. At some point I was commanded (he actually told the help desk operator that relayed this order, “This is my command!”) to document the entire unix infrastructure, and declared I’d be the only one on call until this was completed. I did not bother to object to this because I knew his end was near. The inhouse recruiter’s whiteboard had UNIX ADMIN written real big on it.

One day shortly thereafter, the CTO called me and the other junior unix admin into his office. I put on a solem looking face as I correctly guessed we were about to be told to change all the passwords. We divided up the systems between the three of us. Then I walked back with the other junior to his cube. I needed to break the solemnity at this point so I said something to the effect of, “well thats the biggest non-suprise of the year!” At that point, my now ex-boss walked up to us with a VP escort and proclaimed, “guys I am fired.” He then walked to his desk, and gathered his things with much ado.

To this day, I’ve never had a more awkward moment in my professional career then having to interact with my ex boss who was at that point a dead man walking. I would never describe that particular person as ever conducting himself with dignity, but this was a new low for him.

In this particular case, an attempt was made to immediately escort the fired person out. Perhaps more could be done. He could be fired over lunch. Honestly, this particular person was prone to emotional outbursts. I don’t think a public setting would encourage the man to restrain himself. The only way to give the person his dignity would be to deliver the news in an abandoned building. Finally, regardless of your general policy on the removal of fired persons, this particular case warranted immediate removal for the safety of everyone in the buildings.

That had been the only firing I had witnessed at that company. However, I was involved in the password reset for another one. This is incidentally the firing I disagreed with. This is a person who’s hand I would have shook had I encountered him immediately upon being given the news, when he was a “dead man walking.”

Here’s the thing, I did get to shake his hand. We had lunch several weeks later after he started his new job. He contacted a few coworkers, and we all spread the word. He got to interact with us on his terms, with the pride and dignity of someone that recently started a new job.

Now these experiences are all vicarious to me, and I know not what lies in another mans heart, so I don’t know how these people really took  the news. However, these were formative vicarious experiences to me. As such, they shaped how I dealt with my own termination, which is the subject of the next installment in this series.