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Is escorting terminated workers fair?

Knight Ridder Newspapers

ORLANDO, Fla.

Escort: It's such a genteel word, evoking gentlemen walking ladies to dance floors. But getting escorted against your will is another tune. Getting escorted against your will suggests you're out of control, a criminal. Suspects are escorted into police cars. Prisoners are escorted into courtrooms. Belligerent drunks are escorted from bars. You'll doubtless live your entire life without being that kind of escorted unless you have a brush with the law.

Or unless you're laid off from your job.

"I never would have believed that an employee would be treated like that unless they were caught stealing from the company or something similar," said a former salesman for a Lake Mary, Fla., training company who was fired, handed a box of his things someone else had packed, and walked out to the lobby one morning two years ago. He was never allowed to return to his desk.

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"It's very hard to keep your dignity intact and your self-esteem and self-confidence high after an experience like that," he said.

The man is one of several people who talked about being fired and escorted from their workplaces, but didn't want their names used. All have new jobs now, but still feel humiliated.

One and all

Many companies, concerned about angry reactions to layoffs, have a policy of escorting out anyone they fire.

Employees aren't the only ones who dislike the practice. Only the most sadistic boss would enjoy firing people and steering them out of the building, points out Gene Romagna, founder of The Learning Group, an Orlando, Fla., organizational development and training company.

"There are real arguments to be made for both sides," Romagna said. "I have witnessed some employees try to steal as much as they can in retaliation for their termination. This can be from physical items to highly proprietary corporate documents. Likewise, long-term, trusted employees who would never do such a thing would see (being escorted) as a slap in the face."

That's why employers shouldn't parade every fired employee out the door in front of co-workers, said Wayne F. Cascio, a professor of management at the University of Colorado who wrote "The Guide to Responsible Restructuring" for the U.S. Department of Labor.

Blanket policy doubted

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Instead, escorting should be done only when there is reason to believe the individual could become hostile or destructive.

"The most progressive companies would do this on a case-by-case basis," Cascio said. "The notion of a blanket policy makes no sense. It's demeaning, frankly."

Cascio believes the emotional damage goes beyond the laid-off worker. Remaining co-workers are harmed by the spectacle, he said.

"It leads to a lot of anger and reduced morale," he said. "Most importantly, it sends a signal to them of how they're going to be treated someday."

Others agree. "It sends a horrible message to the remaining employees," said Vernon Anderson, managing director of the Maitland, Fla., office of Spherion, an outplacement, retention and recruitment consulting firm. "The consequences of escorting one person from the building in a demeaning, humiliating manner is other employees will leave. They see a friend and co-worker treated as an animal -- carried out and embarrassed."

A Universal Studios publicity department employee who was fired and escorted out with several others in June said she feels more sorry for her co-workers who were left behind.

"There is so much trust lost," she said. "To regroup the staff and try to rebuild the team again, that's going to take some work."

Not that the experience was a cakewalk for her.

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"It was kind of degrading, being led around in front of everyone," she said. "People are looking at you. They don't know what to say. It's very emotional. I was in tears."

Universal spokesman Jim Canfield said, "It's a very uncomfortable and emotional process for all involved. (Escorting) abbreviates and helps manage a very difficult situation."

Escorting needed

Escorting is an unpleasant but necessary part of business, many workplace experts say.

"Because of things like computer sabotage, people can't take a chance anymore," said Mimi Hull, president of Hull &; Associates Human Relations Management and Development in Maitland. "It is a terrible thing to do and it's embarrassing, but unfortunately, it's a necessity."

Karen Battoe, president of Personal Success Systems in Longwood, Fla., said being escorted benefits employees because they cannot later be accused of theft. "It takes all shadow of a doubt away from the employee," she said.

From a legal standpoint, if a company is going to escort one worker, it should escort them all, said Don Works, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Orlando who represents management in employment matters.

"One of the reasons businesses are starting to do it with everybody is that they risk a lawsuit if they do it only with certain ones," Works said. "There's not such a stigma when they do it with everyone."

But while anger is a normal reaction to losing one's job, Anderson said, the vast majority of people accept the decision.

Companies can protect their data by disabling computer logons of laid-off workers. But ushering them out of the building goes too far, Anderson said.

"Don't trust them with all the company equipment and property one minute and then 15 minutes later treat them like they're a criminal, like they have the plague."

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