The Ugly Business of Firing
As readers of this cranky enterprise know, I had nine jobs in my first 12 years in business and was fired from five of them.
In those days, a person was fired (if lucky) with two weeks pay. Unlike today, anyone who complained—or heaven forbid! sued—was blackballed. References were not forthcoming and neither was a new job.
Let Me Share With You the First Time I Was Fired
In the mid-1960s, Grolier Enterprises was run by four dynamos: Founder Elsworth Howell, whose real love was judging Westminster Kennel Club dog shows at Madison Square Garden; Vice President Bob Clarke, who started in the Grolier mail room; Vice President of Marketing Ed Bakal, a rough-hewn ex-paratrooper; and Creative Vice President Lew Smith, the low-key, creative genius who hired me.
Grolier's business at the time was selling Dr. Seuss books to kids. The competition was Weekly Reader Book Club and Scholastic's paperback book clubs. The business model was based on selling books to students in classrooms through the teacher. Her thank-you reward: sets of books (or other premiums) for the classroom.
With Grolier's Dr. Seuss hardcover club coining money, Howell's team decided to take on the Scholastic with a line of paperbacks to be called the Peter Possum Book Club.
I was Peter Possum.
The Totally Ignorant Entrepreneur
Brand new to direct marketing, I was handed the book club to start from scratch and run. The ground rules:
- All titles had to be 64 pages.
- Howell was not about to pay royalties. All books were to be from the 19th century and in public domain.
- They could, however, be in full color.
- Price to the students: 35 cents each.
I was expected to do everything: find royalty-free books, put them into production, write and design the mailing pieces, work with the list people, figure out keys with Grolier's production wizard Mike Chomko, count orders (if any), and tally up money.
A direct mail virgin, I charged forth. Every time I found myself in over my head, I would yell for help and one of the four partners would immediately clear his desk, sit me down and talk me off the ledge and through the problem. I can say it was the greatest job I ever had. I earned what had to be the equivalent of an MBA in book club management in three months.
I quickly became an expert in copyright law and ran all over New York buying out-of-copyright children's books with magnificent artwork by great illustrators. Among them: Beatrix Potter, Walter Crane, Edward Lear, L. Leslie Brooke, Jessie Willcox Smith, Gustav Doré, John Tenniel and Boutet de Monville. The design of the covers was elegant—a lot of white space with a four-color illustration in a center oval. This design was practical because money was being saved by not varnishing the covers. Had ink been used on heavily designed but unvarnished covers, fingers of our little readers would have become dirty, smudging the cover and inside pages.
The test mailings went out, and bags full of orders and cash piled in. It was a raging success.
Neophytes Do Not Question Experience
The four partners ganged up on me. Instead of allowing me to roll out with our wildly successful test that offered nine books, I was told more is better and ordered to go find 15 more titles.
The covers now were to be solid colors and varnished. I said, "Yeah, but don't we want to back-test-mail the old mailing against the new one?"
I was shot down. "We know this business. The more titles the better. Color covers are better. Do as we say."
And, oh, by the way, I was told to start a book club for the next grade levels.
So I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. My then-wife left me. What had been a beautiful, easily readable mailing brochure to teachers and kids was a jumble of mousetype with book cover illustrations the size of postage stamps.
So did The Gold Mine Book Club for older kids.
My mentor and friend Lew Smith left to become creative director of the Wunderman agency. Howell hired a fat little toad merchandising expert to replace Lew and the toad hired an out-of-work chum to replace me. On a Friday I was given two weeks salary and thrown out on my ass.
The Firing Process Today Is Equally Tacky
Let's take a look at some of these examples:
• Remember Mike Earnest? He starred in an anti-Romney campaign ad. He worked for a Bain capital factory and was told to build a 30-foot stage. All three shifts were herded to the stage and were told the plant was being shut down. According to the ad, Romney made $100 million on the shutdown. —abcnews.com
• From: Carol Bartz, President of Yahoo
To all. I am very sad to tell you that I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward.
• Fort Worth, Texas - RadioShack Corp. notified about 400 workers by email that they were being dismissed immediately as part of planned job cuts. —abclocal.go.com
• Last week, NBC fired 14 people from the Access Hollywood staff—just locked them out of the building as they were returning from lunch. "It was really awful. Their ID cards wouldn't open the gate, and then a security guard came over and told them they were no longer employed there," one insider told Page Six. "Of course, the bosses waited until they'd finished producing the day's show before canning them." —New York Post, Page 6
• The night of Nov. 30, employees at Sanofi-Aventis pharmaceuticals, the world's fourth-biggest drug maker, received an email from the company wishing them a happy Thanksgiving and telling them to check their email again at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 2. A.R., a Sanofi-Aventis sales representative in California who wished to remain anonymous, as her contract forbids publicly disparaging the company, said she and her coworkers each received one of the two mass emails the company sent out that Tuesday morning. Both emails contained a code, an 800-number and a call time, either 8:00 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. The employees who were instructed to call in at the earlier time were told they could keep their jobs, but the 1,700 employees who called in at 8:30 a.m. weren't so lucky: They were laid off by an anonymous voice that told them to stop working immediately, and had no opportunity for question or comment. —Huffington Post
• Chicago Sun-Times restaurant critic Pat Bruno, 68, isn't happy that he was pink-slipped via a phone call from a mid-level editor after decades with the tabloid. "I've known (publisher) John Barron for 28 years," he says. "All he had to do is pick up the phone and tell me himself. He didn't have the balls to do that. I wasn't expecting roses at my feet, just a phone call from someone who appreciated what I did all these years." —Jim Romenesko, poynter.org
Takeaways to Consider
- "How to Fire Someone Compassionately" by Jada A. Graves, usnews.com:
—DON'T fire someone on a Friday.
—DO the deed on a Tuesday.
—DON'T tell remaining staff by scheduling a meeting after the fact.
—DO tell some staff on a need-to-know basis before the fact.
—DON'T wing it. Consult with HR and perhaps also with your company's lawyer to script what you may say and what you absolutely shouldn't.
—DO put it in writing.
—DON'T perp walk them out of the building.
—DO offer some dignity and privacy, if possible.
—DON'T go into hiding. It's neither mature nor professional to avoid the person in the awkward aftermath.
—DO offer help.