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Checking your electronic messages is becoming more important than ever at some companies.
Just before the Labor Day holiday, Fort Worth, Texas-based electronics retailer RadioShack Corp. turned to e-mail to fire 400 employees. The company said it felt that using e-mail messages to deliver the bad news would soften the blow, and allow terminated workers a measure of privacy in which to receive the news, gather their belongings and clear the premises. "The workforce reduction notification is currently in progress," stated the messages in workers' electronic in-boxes, referring to previously announced layoffs. "Unfortunately, your position is one that has been eliminated."
Unfortunately, RadioShack is not the first employer to turn to modern technology to deliver bad news, and it won't be the last.
Last month Blue Banana, a Cardiff, Wales-based chain of body piercing studios, turned to cell phone text messaging to let an employee know she was fired.
"We've reviewed your sales figures and they're not really up to the level we need," her manager wrote. "As a result, we will not require your services any more. Thank you for your time with us." Even in a business accustomed to acute pain, that had to draw an "ouch!"
A company representative said that it turned to text messaging after repeated attempts to reach the employee by phone and leaving messages for her to call. Even so, the company defended its use of text messaging. In a statement to the local newspaper, it stated: "We are a youth business and our staff are all part of the youth culture that uses (text) messaging as a major means of communication."
In anticipation of this brave new future, perhaps, Arun Sarin, the CEO of London-based mobile phone company Vodafone Group P.L.C., negotiated a clause in his contract when hired in 2003 that he could not be fired by either text message or e-mail. He still has the job.
But terminating workers by electronic communications does not come without consequences.
It's not hard to imagine a plaintiffs attorney challenging the method of dismissal in U.S courts, creating a potential liability exposure for companies that think they are saving time, money and effort by relying on electronic pink slips.
In the United Kingdom, there are several instances of courts awarding damages for unfair dismissal to workers who were let go via text messages. However, the rulings focused more on the reasons for abrupt dismissal than the methods employed.
And even without liability, the practice creates reputational risk, especially for companies that depend on public goodwill for a steady stream of customers and revenues.
But at some companies, the risks are even more tangible.
The Accident Group Ltd., a financially troubled personal injury claims firm based in Manchester, England, sacked more than 2,500 employees by text message in 2003. Furious ex-employees ransacked offices in Birmingham and Manchester, taking computers and other office equipment and vandalizing offices. A group of fired employees also told British paper The Sun they planned to fly to the Spanish villa of Accident Group's chairman, Mark Langford, to express their anger--in person. No word on how much more satisfying that face-to-face meeting was.