Managing Saddam Hussein

Tuesday, May 1, 2007 - 01:00

On December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed. Even those who oppose capital punishment generally had little or no sympathy for him. After all, he was a ruthless leader responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Bottom line: if anyone deserved to be put to death, it was he.

Yet, in the months following his execution, there has been little discussion of the carnage he left behind. In fact, there has been little discussion of the fact of his execution. Rather, the world has focused on the process leading up to his execution. More specifically, we react with abject horror to the taunting of Hussein on the way to the gallows.

Have we lost our collective minds? Wouldn't the individuals whose deaths for which he was responsible do anything to be taunted as was he? As for Hussein himself, isn't the real issue the noose cutting open his neck and not the fact that some unkind words were said to him before his life was taken from him?

As civilized people, we demand that individuals be treated with respect even when we are terminating their lives. Even if someone deserves to die, they have a right to retain their dignity until they utter their last breath.

If a cold-blooded murderer is entitled to retain his respect and dignity during the process in which his life is terminated, don't employees who fail at their jobs have the same right during the process in which their employment is terminated? Don't your employees deserve at least what we would demand for Saddam Hussein?

The reality is that too often employment terminations are botched in much the same way as the Hussein termination. Legitimate terminations, but horrible executions.

Many of us read about the large corporation which announced a mass layoff by e-mail. Clearly efficient in terms of saving time, but it was cold and cruel. And yet, it was far from the worst.

In one case, an employee was discharged on "Take Your Daughter to Work Day." One additional fact: his daughter was next to him at the time of termination. Perhaps the employer thought that the support she would offer made up for the severance and outplacement it did not offer.

Then, there's the group of employees who were herded into an auditorium and given color-coded information packets. Employees were segregated based on the color of their packets. Those with one color were led back to the office. Those with the other color were led to the street.

For another employer, all of the above would have been too much work. Instead, the employer intentionally left a new organizational chart on a photocopy machine. If you didn't see your name on the chart, you knew you no longer had a job. If you didn't know that you didn't have a job, perhaps they fired you for stupidity!

Then, there's the employer that didn't even leave an organizational chart clue. Instead, the employee found out when his security card no longer worked. When he told security of the problem with his card, he was advised that the problem was not with the card but that he no longer had a job.

And, if that's not cold enough, how about the employee who was called at home on Christmas Eve and told to drive 300 miles for an emergency meeting. You got it - upon arrival, his gift was notice of his immediate termination. He was lauded on his directional skills, however, in finding the remote location. But he received no severancenot even reimbursement for the mileage incurred to get fired.

Then, there's the employee who made a really big mistake. The manager thought everyone should learn from the mistake. So, the manager fired him in front of all of his peers. Just in case some of the peers did not have full hearing capability, the manager shouted everything, inserting choice words to ensure that she kept everyone's rapt attention.

But, perhaps my personal favorite is the manager who terminated employees to song. "Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it's breaking." I would like to attend the musical about that manager's termination.

What all of these examples have in common is that they are reported by employees who talk only about how they were fired but not whether they should have been fired. The "how" clearly matters.

Most of us dislike firing employees. So we may avoid the unpleasant circumstances. However, when we discharge by e-mail, organizational chart or de-activated security card, we not only demean our workers but we also look like cowards.

In some cases, we are downright angry. After all, we pay a price for an employee's failings. Their failure makes it more difficult for us to achieve our own objectives.

But yelling at employees, terminating them in public places or otherwise demeaning them only demeans the legitimacy of the adverse action and the actor. In other words, when a manager demeans an employee, the issue no longer is the employee's failings but the manager's actions.

The emotional reaction on the part of the public to the Hussein execution may surface in jury deliberations over employment terminations. Every time the judge instructs the jury to base its decision on law and not emotion, the jurors figure out how to frame their emotions as law.

Moreover, when management demeans a poor performer, it loses credibility even with stellar performers. But for the grace of God, that could have been me, most think and some say as they respond favorably to the entreaties of a competitor.

So the next time you need to terminate an employee, do what needs to be done. But remember he or she is someone else's loved one, and act accordingly. If that doesn't get you emotionally where you need to be, then think of Saddam Hussein.