December 11, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Being shown the door

Movies make firing look too easy.

If someone displeases the boss or is discovered to have committed a felony, he is summarily dismissed in a big scene with the simple words -- you’re fired. There are no investigations or any recriminations from the target asking for due process or even discussing retirement pay.

The terminated one simply stomps out of the room and conversation in the board, after a dismal presentation and subsequent firing, resumes. (He couldn’t even explain the concept of net present value.)

In the highlight scene in the movie, Robocop, a rogue executive cannot be punished because of a program that prevents the robot policeman from harming any executive in its law enforcement company. So when this criminal grabs the chairman as hostage right in front of Robocop and the startled board, all the chairman has to do is shout out loud -- you’re fired. This is all the robot needs to hear to unblock the program. Bang, it’s over. The hostage-taking rogue gets the bullet and crashes dead through the 50th story window.

In real life, firing anybody even for just cause is no simple matter.

When companies need to reduce the number of employees, they implement an early retirement program. This is supposed to be an enhanced separation package that is so attractive that targeted employees (though higher executives are preferred due to higher cost reductions) form a queue to be among the beneficiaries. These voluntary programs too often attract the most talented executives who have the best chances of joining the competition. Following the coffee cup theory, the dregs at the bottom seldom get poured out. They need to be scraped off and spooned out.

Voluntary even incentivized exits, as in the case of the unwilling passenger in the now infamous airline ejection to accommodate non-paying crew members, sometimes require force and the possibility of a lawsuit to implement.

Companies have a way of signaling individuals for whom despedida parties have already been budgeted complete with video tributes from colleagues (he is a talented karaoke performer). The targeted employee is made to understand that his continued employment disturbs the equanimity of the boss, often employing both the push and pull method.

This pushing or shoving form of communication may strip the target of his functions, sometimes slowly, sometimes. Or his salary is cut by a third to accommodate an expat consultant. Often, this push method works well enough by itself. But just to speed things up, the incentive or carrot is also served. Maybe in the computation of separation pay, the pot is sweetened by throwing in the purchase of the brand new assigned car for a peso. Maybe a club share is added for the soon-to-be retiree’s continued enjoyment.

As an aside here, which is too lengthy for our usual parenthetical remark, we have to note that firings and separations are routinely couched in punitive language. The exercise of showing ladies and gentlemen out the door is unromantically called a “head count reduction.” Chopping heads, throwing bodies out the window (see above excerpt from Robocop), and even the word “firing” all have some violent resonance. Even the euphemistic management imperative of downsizing hardly softens the verbal blow, and surely doesn’t allude to Alice’s shrinking potion. This one doesn’t grow back to normal.

Of course, not all terminated employees go quietly into the night.

Laid off employees like relocated informal settlers often take to the streets to make the TV evening news and force corporate spokespersons to earn their keep with platitudes -- these picketers are not even our employees. Pickets and mass layoffs go together like tiny cookies and cappuccino. You can also dunk the cookies into the steamy brew.

Some targets in the firing line may consider themselves bulletproof. Maybe, they are former classmates of the CEO, have special ties with a sitting president, or hired for a senior position as a special favor to a large shareholder. But even these cords can be frayed using the carrot and stick, and a heart-to-heart talk with the putative protector who is open to some heartfelt appeals -- he costs too much, and he keeps maligning you.

Exits to be sure are seldom graceful or dignified. Being shown the door is not meant to lead to a wonderful scenery that allows smelling the flowers. You won’t even notice how beautiful they are.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.