relying on e-mail to send bad news

Jaclyn Trop

Jaclyn Trop

Once the most cold-hearted form of communication was being dumped by a lover via Post-It note. Now highly upsetting news has gone high-tech, as employers turn to e-mail to deliver the message: "You're fired".

Two sets of lay-offs recently - at auto supplier Delphi Corporation and the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in Ohio - used e-mail to notify employees of their termination.

Getting an electronic pink slip from your boss is "the most soulless and inappropriate way" to handle a lay-off, says John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based consultant firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. "Even in the Internet age, it's just so hurtful."

Experts say that when it comes to lay-offs, the method is as important as the message.

"A lot of times, the context or tone of the e-mail may be misinterpreted," says Jennifer Feenstra, a division director for OfficeTeam, which is part of the staffing firm Robert Half International. Feenstra said none of her client companies announced lay-offs via e-mail.

But e-mail, the favoured method of communication for many top executives, is seen as a fast and efficient way to contact several thousand employees working around the world.

An OfficeTeam survey of 150 senior executives in the US shows that the percentage of managers preferring e-mail to in-person communication doubled to 65percent in 2007 from 31percent in 1997.

Some companies are leveraging the benefits of both methods to announce lay-offs more efficiently.

Workers let go from Delphi received an e-mail asking them to report to a meeting with their supervisor.

The e-mail did not tell employees they would be losing their jobs, but it followed a company-wide announcement that 250 positions would be cut.

"If people got the e-mail with the announcement, you could put two and two together," said spokesperson Rachelle Valdez.

At the Columbus Dispatch, management gave employees the choice of learning by e-mail or phone whether they would be let go. The paper announced the 45 lay-offs on March 2.

The best known instance of a company using e-mail to lay off employees was RadioShack's 2006 firing of 400 workers. Now defunct Business 2.0 magazine put the incident on its annual list of 101 Dumbest Moments in Business.

"It was just wrong in every way," Challenger said.

Other executives agree that e-mail should be used sparingly when letting workers know their jobs have been cut.

When Valassis Communications Incorporated, a direct marketing firm, cut 100 jobs in November, the news came in person.

E-mail notification "would be inconsistent with our culture", said spokesperson Cindy Hopman.

Lay-offs are a "last resort, but when necessary we do so with the utmost respect and dignity".

Face-to-face meetings are key when important information must be exchanged, said Patrick Irwin, vice-president of human resources for Henry Ford Hospital and Health Network.

"Nothing takes the place of two people talking and engaging. You need to treat employees with as much decency and respect as possible. They - and their friends and family - are our future consumers."

But using e-mail to share bad news isn't necessarily a faux pas, said Jacqueline Whitcomb, a Florida-based etiquette expert. "Five years ago, I might have said that is totally inappropriate," she said, but younger employees "wouldn't even think twice about hearing good, bad, or indifferent news through e-mail". - New York Times News Service