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PSA Crash Prompts Reflection on How Employees Are Fired

December 10, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

In Edmond, Okla., last year, a mailman enraged that he might be fired, unleashed a barrage of pistol shots in the post office where he worked, killing 14 people before he turned a gun to his head and killed himself.

In Los Angeles, a fired executive wouldn't leave his house for a year, ashamed that the neighbors would know he was out of work.

In Dallas, a management systems expert, told to clear out his desk, programmed his computer to erase the company's accounts-receivable records.

Such instances have begun to awaken American corporations to the human and business risks inherent in firing and laying off their workers--a traumatic act that some personnel managers call the corporate "death penalty."

The crash Monday of PSA Flight 1771--which investigators suspect resulted from an act of revenge by a USAir employee terminated after he was reportedly caught stealing from the airline--may quicken that recognition, personnel experts say, and prompt firms to reconsider their methods of severing employees from jobs that provide an increasing share of their self-esteem and social bearings.

"It should remind us all that removing somebody's job, taking them out of a position, is a really delicate and sensitive act and can be very frightening for everybody, both the company and the individual," said William J. Morin, chairman and chief executive of Drake Beam Morin, an international outplacement firm in New York.

Authorities are investigating the possibility that David A. Burke, a 14-year USAir employee, boarded the San Francisco-bound jet at Los Angeles International Airport intent on shooting Ray F. Thomson, the airline manager who fired him last month for allegedly stealing receipts from in-flight cocktail sales. Both men were among the 43 passengers and crew members who died when the PSA jet crashed near Paso Robles.

Personnel and outplacement specialists say terminated employees are more likely to sink into listlessness and depression than to react to the loss of a job with acts of violence or sabotage. But extreme reactions to a firing are hardly unknown.

Death Threats Resulted

Morin said his firm has had nine clients commit suicide in 20 years of providing counseling and job placement services for fired and laid-off workers. "It wasn't only the job loss," he said Wednesday, "but the job loss seems to be the final act that brings them to the brink."

Morin told of one manager who was himself fired at the end of a day he spent handing out pink-slips to co-workers. "He ran to a car where he had a gun, and our people had to literally tackle him," Morin said.

Employees of a drug company, given advance notice of a layoff, attempted to adulterate batches of medication, he said. Other fired workers have aimed death threats at supervisors, called customers to malign their ex-employers and directed abuse at their spouses and children, outplacement advisers said.

Workers are most likely to lash out, experts say, when a termination--because it is patronizing, poorly explained or callously delivered--strips them of their dignity.

"When they get smashed, that's when they want to smash back," said psychologist Robert D. Oberlander of RMA Consulting, an outplacement firm in San Marino.

"It's like the story of the little mouse--if he's cornered, he's going to bite," added Richard E. Bradley, a vice president of the Merchants & Manufacturers Assn. in Los Angeles who has advised companies on proper firing techniques. "And employees are very similar."

Companies have been striving in recent years to make firings and layoffs less painful--not so much for fear of violence, but out of concerns about lawsuits and the recognition that in today's unpredictable labor force, the person let go one day may later be rehired.

Workers, like Burke, who are terminated for cause are still likely to be fired with a cold, swift kick, personnel officers say. But for those who lose their jobs under less punitive circumstances, in-house counseling programs, enhanced severance packages, job search help and the professional services of an outplacement counselor are all in increasing use, managers say.

"These are never anything but difficult processes," said Sandy Comrie, vice president for human resources at Transamerica Life in Los Angeles. "It's a painful thing for the manager who has to deliver the message, and it's painful for the person who has to hear it.

"But if you go into it realizing that's going to be the case, and go into it with concern for the welfare of the individual, and go into it with the support people you're going to need to get through it, people get through it pretty well," she said.

USAir is a client of Morin's firm, but neither Morin nor airline spokesmen would comment on whether Burke was provided outplacement assistance when he was fired.

Despite the new sensitivity, some firings still are handled harshly. A recent survey by the American Management Assn. found that Friday remains the day of choice to issue pink slips, even though consultants uniformly urge firms to terminate early in the week, so workers can begin the outplacement process immediately instead of spending a weekend at home seething.

"Seldom do we acknowledge the significant emotional impact that termination has on people," said Robert W. McCarthy, an outplacement consultant in Century City who knew several of the passengers on Flight 1771.

"We always assume he'll 'take it like a man.'

"But shock and fear sometimes create total immobilization in individuals," McCarthy said. "And unfortunately, in others it creates totally irrational behavior."

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