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Some Bosses Use Hired Guns to Man Their Firing Lines

November 08, 1998|MARTHA IRVINE

CHICAGO — You know it's going to be a bad day at work if George Scharm is waiting for you when you get in.

Scharm is the private eye that companies in the Chicago area hire to fire people.

He has terminated everyone from slackers to embezzlers to a scary Mr. T-like character who went off the deep end and threatened the boss.

For $65 an hour, he delivers the bad news.

"I try to be nice about it. But I keep it simple," he says. "I say, 'You can either resign or be fired.' And then I escort them out the door."

For the same fee, he will also collect the goods needed to do the firing. Once, he fired a factory supervisor whom he caught punching in and then sneaking off to his cottage in Wisconsin three days a week.

Scharm, a retired police officer from the Chicago suburb of Gurnee, turned in his uniform three years ago for a suit and tie. Since then, he figures, he has fired about 25 people.

He represents part of a growing trend. Many bosses seek professional help with firings in the hope of avoiding lawsuits from dismissed workers. Others are looking to lower the risks of retaliation in a world where "going postal" doesn't have much to do with the mail room anymore.

"Ignoring violence in the workplace is like not having a fire extinguisher. It's just not good business," says Beth Lindamood, an analyst with Cincinnati-based Great American Insurance Co., which has seen an increase in violence-related claims in the workplace.

Often, calling in a consultant is also a way to avoid a task that makes even the surliest of bosses squirm. That's what consultant Terry Ebert found when one company asked him to step in.

The boss "was just very upset," says Ebert, managing director of New York-based Ayers Group. "He was a friend of the manager he was about to fire."

But most firing consultants do simply that--consult--and agree that what Scharm does is pretty unusual.

"A private eye who fires people? That's pretty coldhearted," says Mike Colo, vice president of National Human Resource Committee, a consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich. Colo, a black belt in karate, advises clients on how to fire people and sometimes does it himself.

"Oh, how wimpy," says Damian Birkel, a product marketing manager at Sara Lee in Winston-Salem, N.C., who has been fired twice and who also wrote the book "Career Bounce Back!"

"It's demeaning enough to lose your job. It's even worse when you have a second party telling you," he said.

*

Scharm won't identify any of his clients, because "they don't exactly want to publicize that someone's embezzling from the company or threatening the boss."

Birkel has heard plenty of firing horror stories, including the one about a group of North Carolina workers who found out they were laid off when their key cards didn't work.

"If the door unlocked, you knew you had a job. If it didn't, then the security guard sent you in the direction of a career counselor," Birkel says.

In 1993, Bill Powell, who filled a number of jobs for Delta Air Lines at New York's LaGuardia Airport, got the news that he had been laid off from bosses he had never met.

"It just felt as though you became a number," he says. "It was like, 'See you later and thanks for coming out.' "

For his part, Scharm says he takes no pleasure in doing the dirty work.

"It's not like, 'Oh man, I get to fire someone today!' " he says. "It's the hardest thing because you're actually changing someone's life."

Martha Irvine writes for Associated Press.

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