NEW YORK – Donald Trump (search) has breathed new life into the phrase "You're fired!" on "The Apprentice." But in real corporate America, those two little words have been left for dead.
Human Resource departments frown on using the “F” word when terminating an employee, and many managers shy away from it — because they’re afraid of conflict and lawsuits.
“They want to avoid confrontations with employees," said New York City employment lawyer and “Getting Fired” (search) author Steven Mitchell Sack, who represents individual workers. "Every time they fire someone, they’re looking for a potential lawsuit. There are nicer, more polite ways of saying it.”
Sack and other employment law experts say they’ve never seen a real-life case where a boss actually uttered that explosive interjection.
“I’ve never known anyone to say those words,” said Nancy Williams, a Seattle attorney who represents companies in labor disputes. “You see that more in old movies or cartoons.”
So what exactly is wrong with the phrase “You’re fired!” in normal business practices? For one thing, it sounds nasty.
“It’s cold. It’s not personal,” said Mary Cheddie, an HR professional who is on the board of directors for the Society for Human Resource Management. “Donald Trump says it with vengeance for the effect on TV. This should never happen in the workplace.”
That’s partly because emotions are already running high when workers are axed — so wise employers are careful about how they go about it.
“There are occasionally allegations of the firing itself taking place in a way that’s humiliating — doing it in front of their peers, yelling and screaming, escorting them off the premises or having a policeman standing by,” said Williams. “I don’t think most enlightened employers would ever approach it that way.”
And if bosses are all fired up about firing a worker, they should probably wait until they’ve calmed down.
“If a manager goes ad hoc and starts blowing people away because they’re having a bad day, it’s not going to be handled nicely,” Cheddie said. “I never allow anyone to be terminated when managers are really upset. I have them cool off for 24 hours.”
It's a smart tactic, since anger-driven firings can lead to backlash. Frequently, people who sue employers are more upset with the way they were treated than the act itself.
“They’re upset with how it was handled,” said Cheddie. “They were made to feel like they were a worthless piece of crap. Someone might be so angry that all they can think of is, ‘I’m going to get the company back.’”
Of course The Donald does as The Donald pleases, and there is plenty of insulting to go around when he lets someone go on “The Apprentice.” But that’s “reality” — and this is reality.
“It’s not the norm that the boss brings you in front of other people, yells at you and says, ‘You’re fired!’ and then you meekly get in an elevator and take a cab off into the sunset,” said Sack.
So what should employers do to make the unpleasant process of terminating someone more palatable?
“You want to be compassionate and human,” Cheddie said. She usually likes to say, “We have made the decision to end your employment” and explain the reasoning behind it.
And though managers love euphemisms in firing times, Cheddie advises bosses to can them.
“It used to be very popular to say, ‘I’m going to have to let you go’ and one day a person said, ‘Oh great, where do I get to go?’” she said. “I don’t like to use fancy words.”
What sometimes happens in the workplace goes beyond euphemisms into the world of the passive aggressive, with employers resorting to tactics like demotions, reassignments, pay cuts, poor performance reviews, impossible standards and even office location changes.
Sack said he has seen cases of unwanted employees — many of them older workers — being pushed out.
“People are told they should think about leaving and if they don’t comply they’re going to get fired,” he said. “So they wind up resigning and being offered a (severance) package as opposed to being thrown out the door.”
The best way to handle a termination, said Sack, is to avoid threats of lawsuits, stay calm and get as much out of the firing as possible, right then and there. He suggests axed employees ask for a written reference on company letterhead, a fair severance sum and adequate benefits.
“In the old days, they’d just bow their heads and shuffle out the door when they got canned,” said Sack. “Firing should be fought, it should be negotiated and you do have rights in many situations.”
But most of Trump’s firees don’t seem too angry about the way The Donald handled them on national TV.
“For the most part, Mr. Trump did a pretty good job of firing people,” Katrina Campins (search), one of the booted-off “Apprentice” contestants, told The Associated Press. “I think he’s a great boss.”