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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.

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