Forum: Letting go of employees? Do it with compassion and respect

I was overwhelmed by guilt recently after watching the movie The Courageous Heart Of Irena Sendler, having been prompted earlier to read a Straits Times article, "More local workers sought help on salary disputes, wrongful dismissals amid Covid-19" (July 9).

What has saving Jewish children to do with the treatment terminated employees get? The simple answer is compassion.

Unlike Ms Sendler, a courageous and compassionate woman who saved 2,500 children, I am a coward who was afraid to stand up against the way dismissed employees were treated.

For more than 25 years of my career, I have represented an employer who asked many employees to leave immediately after a five- to 10-minute conversation (managers are told to keep it brief). These employees had to shut down the IT system, return company property such as phone, credit card and access card, and give up their medical benefits, even if they were going through treatment for an illness - all on the same day, without getting to say "goodbye" and "thank you" to their colleagues with whom they had worked for years.

I had become numb and even felt proud of being able to separate personal feelings from poor human resource practices, which amounted to cold and ruthless treatment given to a once- valuable asset of the firm.

I really did feel sorry whenever I had to conduct a service termination, but I was not courageous enough to speak out against such uncompassionate behaviour.

Compassion in the workplace calls for employers to be empathetic, and to seek to understand and treat their employees as human beings and not as digits.

In reality, employees realise and accept that losing a job is not uncommon, given the disruptions in the global economy these days.

However, the process of termination can be conducted with compassion and respect. This would require time, commitment and responsibility from an employer.

In my opinion, other than termination on the grounds of gross misconduct which may justify immediate departure, I would advocate more open feedback and regular conversation with employees. This may take more time, especially for employees struggling with work, stress, unrealistic expectations, and health and family issues.

After agreeing on a workable progress plan, employees should be given the chance to improve, reform and reskill before employers show them the door.

Termination should never come as a big surprise to employees and when it happens, they are entitled to know why they are being terminated.

The best of employers will even provide both financial and non-financial assistance to help with the transition.

The worst cruelty of all is when employers refuse to give the reason for termination and, therefore, there is no closure for the affected employees and the pain lingers.

I know of many such employees who have suffered from such treatment and never quite recovered from it.

Do I continue to live with pangs of conscience that I did, and said, nothing because I was too afraid of speaking the truth? Well, it is time that I borrowed some of Ms Sendler's courage and stated that, as an HR professional, I strongly disagree with employers who refuse to provide a reason for termination but simply ask employees to leave immediately without dignity and self-respect.

I disagree that compensation in lieu of notice, or ex gratia payment, is compassion.

Finally, I disagree with the notion that there is no room for compassion in the workplace.

Lynette Leow

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