So, machines are firing people now?

26 | Have you ever been fired from a job before? If so, I imagine it was during an awkward in-person meeting between you, your boss and somebody from the HR department. Today, however, we live in a different era and companies are using machines to fire employees, without input from management. Don’t believe me? Tune in and I’ll share an example of what may be a sign of things to come.

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About the host:

Over the past decade, Jim Stroud has built an expertise in sourcing and recruiting strategy, public speaking, lead generation, video production, podcasting, online research, competitive intelligence, online community management and training. He has consulted for such companies as Microsoft, Google, MCI, Siemens, Bernard Hodes Group and a host of startup companies. During his tenure with Randstad Sourceright, he alleviated the recruitment headaches of their clients worldwide as their Global Head of Sourcing and Recruiting Strategy.  He now serves ClickIQ as its VP, Product Evangelist.


Have you ever been fired from a job before? If so, I imagine it was during an awkward in-person meeting between you, your boss and somebody from the HR department. Today, however, we live in a different era and companies are using machines to fire employees. Don’t believe me? I’ll share an example of what may be a sign of things to come, right after this…

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The popular blog – “The Verge” obtained documents showing how Amazon used a computer system to automatically track and fire hundreds of warehouse workers for failing to meet productivity quotas.  While not every decision was made by a computer system, the documents — included a signed letter by an Amazon attorney describing the system — reveal how deeply automated the process really is.

“Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity,” reads the letter as quoted by The Verge, “and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors.”

Let me quote a bit more from that Verge article.

Critics see the system as a machine that only sees numbers, not people. “One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they’re monitored and supervised by these automated systems,” Mitchell says. “They’re monitored and supervised by robots.”

The system goes so far as to track “time off task,” which the company abbreviates as TOT. If workers break from scanning packages for too long, the system automatically generates warnings and, eventually, the employee can be fired. Some facility workers have said they avoid bathroom breaks to keep their time in line with expectations.

The idea of being fired by a machine is more than a little unnerving to me. It just seems so… cold and unprofessional. I would feel the same way about firing people by text message, which is something that has already occurred on multiple occasions. Case in point…

Firing people with an algorithm is one thing and by text is another. However, can you imagine laying off 160 people via email?

Yahoo reports: Back in 2012, Financial firm Aviva Investors accidentally fired its entire staff by email. The form-letter style email spelled out the requirements of the employees’ confidentiality agreement, and included the line “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and wish you all the best for the future.” Of course, the email was meant for one specific person who was leaving the company, but an awkward computer mistake led to the message being sent to everyone in the company.

The electronic communique didn’t specifically tell workers that they were fired, and after about a half hour, a second email went out apologizing for the mistake and clarifying that no one was fired. Still, for a lot of employees, those had to be a nerve-wracking couple of minutes considering that the U.K.-based Aviva announced earlier that year that it would be eliminating 160 positions — about 12% of its total workforce.

Firing by algorithm, text or email, is all so very rude, I think and The Emily Post Institute agrees with me. For those who don’t know, the Emily Post Institute maintains a 25 book collection; conducts seminars and trainings; and partners with businesses and non-profit organizations to bring etiquette and manners to a wide audience. According to them, one should never text to inform someone of sad news or to end a relationship. Such news should be delivered in person or by phone.

So, culturally, we know what is proper. But what about legally?

Alison Doyle is the job search expert for The Balance Careers and one of the industry’s most highly-regarded career experts. She has been recognized by Forbes as one of the Top 100 Websites For Your Career and in my opinion, one smart cookie. Concerning today’s topic, she has this to say…

“Unless you are covered by an employment contract or state law that stipulates how you can be terminated, there are no restrictions on how an employer can fire you. Employers can fire employees over the phone, by paper letter or email, in person – or even by sending a text message.”

So there you have it, more often than not, you are at an employer’s mercy. That being said, it would not be in a company’s best interest to fire people by text, email or even algorithm. Why? I think such a practice damages the morale of the workplace, hurts retention efforts and can negatively impact business if the public at large is not sympathetic to your process.

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