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Termination by Skype

That technology has eased the burden of a great number of human resource tasks is a secret to no one. Now everything from offers of employment to the dissemination of employee manuals and employment contracts, everyday employee communication and even job interviews have been streamlined with technology’s kiss.

But at least one gambit in the HR game should probably stay outside of technology’s reach: termination of employment.

ImageAnyone who’s seen George Clooney’s high-flying movie Up in the Air will remember the conflict of old versus new when his character’s role as a stand-in firing machine, who subs for corporate types who’d rather not muddy their hands with dismissing staffers, is made redundant when an even more efficient system is introduced to the unpleasant business of corporate terminations: laying off by videoconference.

Needless to say, this highly impersonal approach to an eminently personal subject is not welcomed by those on its receiving end.

This came to real-life light recently when a case before the BC courts sought to settle the question of whether an employee was fired or if he quit, the confusion stemming from the fact that the proceedings unfolded inside of a Skype conversation.

In the case, Oliver v. Sure Grip Controls Inc., the plaintiff sought damages for alleged wrongful dismissal from his employer who, in turn, alleged that the plaintiff quit his job.

The story is a rambling, circuitous one, but its ultimate point of contention focuses on whether the employee had accepted a tacit declaration of dismissal over a Skype dialogue, or if the employer had understood the employee was quitting, again over a Skype call. In the end, the court found that the company had terminated the plaintiff, citing the employee’s apparent acceptance of this development in the electronic exchange. But the facts are undeniably muddled by the casual, technologically facilitated setting in which this important discussion took place.

And so as much as Skyping can be a boon to much of the HR task basket — interviewing potential candidates for whom an in-person interview is impractical prominent among them — it’s probably not the most humane vehicle for airing a workplace grievance, say, discussing a staffer’s performance or releasing an employee from the terms of his employment.

The Complicated — and Compulsory — Employment Contract

Sometimes, in the excitement of securing a new professional venture, critical details of the arrangement are overlooked. It’s a potentially risky oversight that can expose new employee and employer both to problems that a comprehensive employment contract might have sidestepped.

The particulars of a thoughtful, wide-ranging employment contract — which needn’t be written and is just as binding in verbal form — are fairly straightforward. But that doesn’t mean they’re always present.

ImageIdeally, this important document will include mention of:

compensation. That vast category includes such specifics as salary, wages, bonuses, profit-sharing, overtime, benefits, vehicle allowances and vacation pay. Discussion around this essential needs to cover the timing of their dispensation, along with their particulars.

benefits. Often, employee benefits like health and life insurance only take effect after a set probationary period. It’s important that you acknowledge this waiting interlude and, if it doesn’t suit you, that you petition to have it waived.

termination. As counterintuitive as contemplation about the end of a job at its launch might seem, it’s important for both sides of the relationship to be clear about its details. Here, issues like reasonable notice, eligible dismissal terms, good-faith-and-fair-dealing obligations of both parties upon termination, and termination compensation need to be addressed.

policies and procedures. Familiarity with a lengthy employee handbook loaded with minutiae about an employee’s corporate expectations might seem an entirely disagreeable obligation, but it’s essential for newcomers for the part it has to play in a range of their employment particulars. These might include expectations of employee confidentiality, non-compete restrictions, and details about changes to the contract in such areas as job title and duties.

If either side of a new professional engagement has any issues with the expectations set out in an employment contract, they are wise to raise them with their counterpart sooner rather than later.