By Howard Levitt and Kathryn Marshall

Treating people like disposable robots is never smart

By any measure, Bell Media Inc. has had a bad couple of weeks, and there is no question it is against the ropes. But, ultimately, it is the author of its own misfortune.

Ever since the news broke that long-time CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme was out the door at Bell Media, media coverage has been dominated by the public’s viscerally angry response. News of the beloved LaFlamme’s ouster caused outrage that the company apparently didn’t see coming.

This is a textbook example of what a corporation must avoid when cutting ties with a long-serving, popular employee. Many lessons can be learned from how Bell Media handled (or did not handle) LaFlamme’s departure that apply to small and large organizations alike. The peril of mishandling an employee’s exit is not limited to just massive media corporations.

Bell Media’s greatest error was misjudging the public as well as internal reaction that would result from LaFlamme’s sudden departure. The public was shocked. How could a living-room staple, one with top ratings, who Canadians had come to trust and love be discarded without warning?

The company is now in full damage control mode, which could have been prevented had it simply provided LaFlamme a proper send-off.

What kind of send-off? For starters, permitting her to have a fulsome goodbye on national television. Perhaps, as with other anchors in the past, an advance public notice of her departure and a few nice tribute episodes.

One of the biggest mistakes we often see is the way companies manage the human elements, rather than the contractual elements, of employee departures.

There is a misguided view in the human-resources industry when it comes to departing employees. It goes like this: Quickly cut ties, usher them out the door and never speak their name again. This may be a wise move when it is an employee fired for cause, but not when it is a well-liked employee leaving in controversial circumstances.

Treating people like disposable robots is never smart. Offering a departing employee small things, such as a proper goodbye and a chance to bid farewell to coworkers, helps smooth over potential upset. It can also ease the bitter feelings that come with all terminations.

This matters because, in many circumstances, personal emotion fuels wrongful dismissal cases. As we see in our office daily, the first thing a fired employee starts talking about is how they were blindsided by their termination and feel discarded like yesterday’s trash. They feel they were not provided the dignified departure they deserved. This is especially true for long-serving employees who saw the business through tough times.

Feelings of resentment and anger also fuel how litigious a former employee becomes. If treated with care and dignity, they are less likely to want to go to war with their former employer. But if they feel disrespected and mistreated, they are more likely to viscerally desire to fight back

Companies also must decide how they will communicate a departure. The majority of complaints we receive from fired employees is that they think their employer mishandled the communication of their departure.

Employers, where possible, should include the departing employee in the messaging. Allowing them to contribute, even a little, goes a long way.

Ensuring that other employees hear about the departure internally before it is publicly announced is also critical. Internal blindsiding causes angst and uproar.

A proper send-off and dignified goodbye are key. We are not saying that a party is required. In many cases, this would be awkward. But something simple, such as allowing them to craft their own departure email, would be meaningful. Giving them a bit of control in a process where they have none makes a difference.

These suggestions also boost company morale. Others in the company look to see how departures are handled, and if they are handled well, it makes them feel better. The last thing a company wants to do is showcase poor treatment of a departing employee, because others will think they are next.

We live in an era where corporate culture is under a microscope because social media has given the public a platform to tell companies what they think. Practices that were acceptable 20 years ago can no longer be the status quo.

It called in an investigator, but to investigate the already upset newsroom, not those making the decision. This was such an obvious façade that few were mollified. It then threw the public another sop by allowing Michael Melling, the vice-president of news who allegedly asked who had allowed LaFlamme to go grey, to go on leave. But no one believes he made this decision alone.

I recommend the board intervene and hire a retired judge to conduct the investigation. The board’s members are all respected individuals, but are more the sort I would select to be on a bank’s board or perhaps that of the Rosedale Golf Club. Still, they are better situated to get to the bottom of this than management, who were necessarily implicated in the decision.

A former judge should get to the bottom of the rot that many are saying exists at Bell Media. The board should also bring back LaFlamme immediately to end the crisis and restore (likely increase) its ratings.

The public has spoken loud and clear to Bell Media that the way it treated LaFlamme is unacceptable.

Corporate Canada best heed the wakeup call to not be in Bell Media’s shoes tomorrow.