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Fired Over Yahoo Messenger: Efficiency or Cowardice?

Someone close to me was recently released from her contract by her employer of 14 years -- over Yahoo Messenger. She was let go along with several other long-time contractors with that company in a single message, sent after hours. If you're outraged, good for you. If for even a moment this makes you think you have a new option for passing on bad news, keep reading.

Modern technology has given us many options for communication, and this is a good thing overall. We have a range of choices, from quick Instant Messaging (IMs) to high-tech video conferencing.The trick for leaders is to choose the appropriate tool for the appropriate message.

Ordinarily the more complicated or important the message, the richer communication tool you'd want use. Unless, of course, you're trying to avoid any interaction with the people you're passing the message along to. Then you might find yourself choosing something that limits interaction, so you don't have to look them in the eye.

If you saw the George Clooney movie Up in the Air, you probably remember when the young hotshot got the idea to let people go over webcam -- and how that was received not only by the people being fired (who predictably weren't impressed) but by everyone else: relief at saving money and momentarily avoiding conflict, and then guilt at the soullessness of it all.

Research has shown that there's an emotional disconnect when communicating over distances to begin with. People fall prey to the temptation to exaggerate, lie, bully and do things they would never do if they had to look the other person in the eye. Good managers and leaders have to be constantly vigilant. Are they maintaining healthy, constructive relationships that will get the most from these human resources, or are they part of a "churn and burn" culture where people are viewed as mere equipment to be swapped in and out at will?

As more of us are dependent on technology to communicate, it becomes even more important that we make good choices about which tools to use when. It's also easy to rationalize poor choices as being time-sensitive or "just business."

Sure, the employer in question was avoiding conflict, and timezones make direct contact complicated. But human dignity and decency demanded at least a telephone call, so the conversation could be had at least voice-to-voice, if not face-to- face.

What was the impact of this behavior? No surprise: the people let go were insulted, humiliated and angry. The employer probably figures they're not working for him any more, so who cares? The remaining employees, however, were also shocked and offended by the behavior, and you can guarantee that will have a long-term impact on their relationship to the company and will probably result in turnover and lost productivity over time. The workplace culture could not be more clearly defined -- and it's not warm and fuzzy.

If these folks had any doubts about how they were valued (or not) this pretty much answered those questions.

It's vital to remember that even outsourced workers, temps and contractors are human beings and need to be communicated with in ways that acknowledge things like their basic humanity. Employers that make smart choices based on the best way to get commitment and productivity from their employees will reap long term benefits. Those who view technology as a way of turning workers into commodities will ultimately pay the price in reputation, productivity and turnover costs.

At least if there's any justice in the universe.

photo by flickr user Mykl Roventine, CC 2.0

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