Mass layoffs by conference call? There's got to be a better way

January 31, 2014: 10:47 AM ET

News service Patch fired hundreds of its employees by conference call on Wednesday, showing just how tactless some employers can be when it comes to mass firings.

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FORTUNE -- Patch employees likely thought that their lowest point had come in August, when AOL (AOL) CEO Tim Armstrong fired its creative director live on a conference call to discuss other layoffs after the executive snapped a photo of him.

But a Patch conference call on Wednesday may have reached an even greater level of tactlessness. The chief operating officer of Patch, which is now owned by turnaround firm Hale Global, announced on a conference call that the jobs of all those who had dialed in -- estimated in the hundreds -- had been cut.

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"Unfortunately, your role has been eliminated, and you will no longer have a role at Patch, and today will be your last day of employment with the company," COO Leigh Zarelli Lewis said in a recording posted by media blog Romenesko.com.

Efficient? Sure. Sensitive? Definitely not. The announcement was a punch to the gut. It's not just that people were let go, but that they were notified in such an impersonal manner -- en masse -- as if one employee was no different from the next.

There has to be a better way, right?

Of course. Firing one person is tough; firing a slew of folks is that many times harder. But the way to execute it properly is obvious, says John Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "You follow the golden rule. How would you hope to be informed of this news?" he says. "You want to think about it as if you're next, and in some cases you are."

Following those guidelines typically leads managers to deliver the news to their employee one-on-one in private. "This is a big life event. Losing your job means people often have to struggle to find a new job. Sometimes it means they have to move," Challenger says. Managers often mishandle the issue because it's heart-wrenching for the person administering the layoffs too. But letting employees go privately, away from their peers, "gives them time to compose themselves," he says. And it preserves a company's culture. "These are people's friends who are leaving," he says. Other employees don't want to see people they care about treated poorly.

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As awful as the Patch conference call was, it isn't the worst ever, not by a long shot. RadioShack wins that title by a landslide. In 2006, the electronics retailer laid off 400 employees at its Fort Worth headquarters by email, which is the professional equivalent of someone breaking up with you via Post-It note.

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