The new rules of firing - and being fired

September 12, 2011: 12:36 PM ET

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz's ouster and her blunt email to the company's entire workforce raises questions about firing protocol in today's working world.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

Carol Bartz

Carol Bartz

FORTUNE -- Both the firing of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz over the phone, and her subsequent mass email sharing the ignominy, raise questions about appropriate workplace behavior in an era of global corporations and virtual workforces.

Did the Yahoo (YHOO) board treat Bartz badly by neglecting to terminate her in person or at least via video teleconference? Was Bartz rash and unprofessional by blasting the board in an email to the entire Yahoo workforce and subsequent media interviews? Can her career ever recover?

"She may be able to overcome what many of us would consider an inappropriate response," says Miriam Salpeter, a job search coach and Atlanta-based author of Social Networking for Career Success. "I don't think her reaction should inform anyone else's way to handle how they are managing their personal reputation and professional brand."

The situation highlights the changing rules of engagement in corporate America. Increasingly, employees from the entry level to the corner office are worrying about shaping their professional brand and how a sudden departure will affect their image, work relationships, and career prospects.

Where a previous generation of workers might have gone along with the thin subterfuge of a mutual parting of ways, today's sophisticated professionals would do well to carefully plan the messages they send in the wake of being fired, say career experts.

"In a high profile situation, it's important to put your own spin on it," says Salpeter. Don't air the company's dirty laundry in a public declaration that might cause people to question your judgment. Still, "talking to close contacts and sharing that information is not a bad idea."

In those conversations, she advises taking responsibility for anything on your part that might have led to your termination -- while putting it in the context of any unreasonable expectations or circumstances beyond your control. "People value and understand someone who takes responsibility," she says.

The Yahoo board should brush up on the appropriate uses of various technologies for conversations with management and staff, says Georgia Collins, North America managing director for consulting firm DEGW. "This incident speaks to the fact that we maybe haven't quite got that right. It's probably not ingrained enough in our business education or corporate training programs," says Collins.

For instance, even if Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock couldn't fire Bartz in person, could he have arranged a virtual face-to-face? Or could he have prepared her better in advance, so that she felt that her feelings and past hard work were appreciated? "We frequently default to what's easiest, and often that's not best," Collins says.

Whenever a relationship ends, whether in a romantic or business context, an in-person conversation is best, says Shawn Graham, a small business consultant and author of Courting Your Career.

But looking back, Bartz may actually come to appreciate the silver lining of being fired over the phone: she didn't have to worry about her facial expressions or non-verbal cues. "As much as we feel we'd be slighted if we were let go by phone or text, it's got its upside," Graham says. "Not having to control your emotions and non-verbal reactions while your boss and someone from HR are staring at you blankly can be an advantage."

If you feel like following Bartz's example, remember the sage advice to write a letter to a person you feel has wronged you, but put it in a drawer overnight so that you have a chance to think. "You don't want to sound like the jilted lover," he says. "Nothing good is going to come out of it. You say your two cents and it will probably just come off as bitter. You aren't going to get that job back."

Look at the respect people lost for Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert over his scathing open letter to LeBron James, calling his decision to join the Miami Heat a "cowardly betrayal" and accusing James of narcissism and selfishness.

In this connected age, you don't have to post a missive on a website for everyone to learn about it. So think through your actions first, says Graham. And when you do reach out to former colleagues and business contacts, figure out what you want to accomplish in those conversations. Just to stay in touch? Network your way to a new job?

"Let them know it's okay to be in touch. It's awkward and they may feel uncomfortable," he says. "If you can make them feel at ease, that can help create a dialogue."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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