Sep 17, 2007

Red Carpet Smiles: Allowing Fired Employees to Exit Gracefully

There were a couple of familiar faces missing from the red carpet at the Emmys this year. That's because the TV Guide Channel replaced familiar commentators Joan and Melissa Rivers with "Dancing With The Stars" alums Lisa Rinna and Joey Fatone.

Apparently, the relationship between the TV Guide Channel and the Rivers ended amicably--right? After all, when asked about Joan and Melissa, Lisa Rinna had nothing but praise. And TV Guide Channel President Ryan O'Hara wished them the best. Of course, most of us read between the lines. And the normally loquacious Joan Rivers hasn't spoken about what really transpired--yet.

We all understand the need to respect former employees' reputations when they leave our organizations involuntarily. How do we deal with the fallout of losing an employee? What do we tell customers and coworkers? What do we allow these individuals to tell prospective employers about why they're no longer with us?

The best answer about what to share with others is probably "as little as is necessary." For example, unless there's a good reason to reveal details to co-workers -- perhaps because the employee has made a credible threat of violence -- it's best to be tight-lipped. Doing otherwise doesn't only risk legal liability for defamation -- a claim that's difficult to prove but can nonetheless be expensive to litigate -- it causes other employees to doubt whether you're trustworthy and respectful. After all, if you'll tell them information about co-workers, they'll worry that you'll also reveal information about them to others.

When it comes to references, you'll probably be tempted to be similarly tight-lipped. But consider how helpful it is to get an honest reference from a former employer. Don't mislead a prospective employer by only highlighting the positive characteristics of a former employee's work when there are negative ones that need to be addressed as well. But do consider that an employee who wasn't right for your company or in a specific job assignment may do just fine elsewhere. After all, while Joan and Melissa might not be best as red carpet commentators, they may be just perfect as red carpet bloggers.

If you need information on how to handle reference requests for former employees, check out Dealing With Problem Employees, by Amy DelPo and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).

Alayna Schroeder