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E-mail Lets Companies Deliver Bad News From Afar

February 21, 2001

Better watch that e-mail. Instead of explaining layoffs and spending cuts in person, bosses are avoiding the dreaded task by using technology to break bad news.

Many employees are learning via e-mail that job cuts are in the works or colleagues already have been laid off. E-mail is also being used to inform workers of travel restrictions, hiring freezes and other significant spending changes.

While critics say the practice is too impersonal, employers praise the use of e-mail as a quick way to get the information to all workers, especially those in remote or home offices. For example:

* Some employees in the Seattle area who telecommute learned via e-mail that they were losing their jobs. The company called an in-person meeting to announce the cuts, but telecommuters who couldn't attend were informed electronically about the layoffs once the meeting was underway.

''I want you to know that this was a very difficult decision for the company to make . . . we know this must be very painful to hear,'' the e-mail read. ''We'd like you to take the rest of the day off (paid, of course).''

* Discovery Communications laid off some of its full-time staff after sending e-mail telling workers of strategic changes. ''It alerted people to the structural changes in dot-com and that staff would be affected,'' says spokeswoman Eileen Ratnofsky.

* Motorola sent e-mail to employees in its semiconductor sector explaining layoffs and other cost-cutting steps. Workers being let go were told in person, a spokesman says, but word of what was happening went out electronically. ''It's important to let everybody know what's going on,'' says spokesman Jeff Gorin.

* Online brokerage Ameritrade told downsized employees that they were being let go, but e-mail was sent to the more than 2,000 remaining call-center workers informing them of the layoffs.

But such use of technology has some critics crying foul.

''The only advantage is it gives management an opportunity to duck and dodge angry employees,'' says Peter Giuliano, chairman of Executive Communications Group in Englewood, N.J. ''If you want to maintain good relationships and your respect in the marketplace, these kinds of things should be done in person.''

People are more comfortable delivering bad news via e-mail than in person or on the phone, according to a study by Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University and New York University. They're also more honest.

E-mail is necessary when bad news is about to become public, employers say.

''If we put out a press release, it will be all over CNN and online services. If we're making a statement to the public, we work hard to make sure employees get it simultaneously,'' says Beth Sawi, chief administrative officer at Charles Schwab, which used e-mail to explain some spending cutbacks.

Stephanie Armour ,


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