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.

Firing with dignity: My own walk of shame

This is the second and final part of my series on firing. It is an apologia for the practice of immediate removal with escort of the terminated employee. In part one I talked about two firing of coworkers of mine that were formative experiences for me. In this part, I will talk about my experience of being fired and escorted out immediately.

At this point in my career I was a .NET developer. I was a rising star in my company, until I made a mistake that lead to a fall from grace. Officially I was laid off. Two other developers from my office were laid off that day, and I’m told several from another office. I don’t wish to speculate how long I would have lasted had a round of layoffs not happened. That’s not the point. Through a series of factors, a decision was made by my employers to terminate my employment. That decision was executed in a manner that took into account my dignity and I will describe said execution here and provide commentary.

My CEO asked me to step into the conference room. I followed him and closed the door. He said my boss will be joining us and reopened the door. My boss entered and the CEO closed the door. He began a solemn speech and long winded speech in which I was told I was no longer going to be part of the company. I was told I could call him next week if I wanted to talk, and that the head of HR would contact me with my severance package and I could provide said person with an address to ship my stuff. I was asked to hand over my access card, and told we would go to my desk, where I could grab any essential items such as my keys or my wallet, and then we would walk out the door.

I made no verbal utterance during the process. I was in a bit of shock. I took my access card out of the back of my George Costanza wallet, the same location in that wallet every access card I’ve ever been issued by an employer has been stored, and where my current access card is stored. I then walked back to my desk.

At my desk packed some things into my book bag. I realized I should not bring all the books on my desk. I debated taking my IBM Model M keyboard, an important talisman of mine. I realized just this once I should avoid my pack-rat tendencies and let it be shipped to me.

It was almost lunch. I called a friend who lived nearby, walked to his apartment and dropped the news. He bought me lunch. I walked to the local library and read a book for several hours. I called a recruiter and and old boss I consider a mentor. After 5pm I met with the coworker who got me into the company. We drank. I drank a lot that night, but not beyond a normal Friday nights drinking at that point in my life.

Around 6:30am Saturday morning my friend and now former co-worker dropped me off at my house. I gave him my company laptop which the CEO forgot to ask for, and informed HR via email it was in his possession.

Sunday night I told my fiancée. She took the news harder than I did. However, she was there to be my harbor for this storm. Luckily things moved quickly so I didn’t have to lean on her for very long, and the wedding didn’t need to be rescheduled.

I never called my boss. I didn’t need closure. I knew what my sin was. Two Fridays later at 11 pm I started a 30 day contract that lasted almost a year. Things got progressively better from there.

Thats my story. What do I feel my CEO did wrong? There was no need to harp on the fact that I closed the conference room door. Also, I wish he let me open the door to the elevator bank myself when I walked out the door after getting my things. However, that was my boss exhibiting idiosyncrasies that have always jarred with me.  Had I been a weaker person, had I perhaps cried, or yelled or acted out in a way I would later regret, he would have minimized those actions, minimized my regret. In other words he would have accted in compassion and taken into account my dignity. The extra level of defiance I would have needed to exert if I really wanted to reenact the “say good night to the bad guy” scene from Scarface ensured that if I did I could rest assure that I really wanted to do it.

So thats my one complaint about the execution of the termination. Everything else about the execution was perfect. I was allowed privacy. I made no verbal utterances, or attempted any form of defiance, so I can’t grade their counter reaction. However, my boss and CEO were both individually capable of physically restraining me if I reacted with violence, and they stood between me and the door. Nothing ill was said of me by either party, and my boss was one of the people that connected me with headhunters.

I’ve corresponded with several of my coworkers after I was back on my feet again. I’ve done lunch and drinks with some. I don’t feel I was denied the ability to say goodbye. Had I been allowed to be a “dead man walking” for an extended period of time that day, and to say goodbye to everyone that day, I would have to shake their hands as a lesser man. For better or for worse I define myself as a programmer, and therefore my job is closely tied to my identity. When I was fired, part of my identity was violently torn from me. I had the weekend to come to terms with being “Justin, the between jobs developer.”