News & Features » Street Talk (Old)

You're Separated! Wilder's Firing Squad Softens the Blow


No one likes to be fired. Equally distasteful are the "terminated for cause," "let go" and "forced to resign." We all know the intentionally vague "left to pursue other opportunities" from management translates to "we're concerned about a lawsuit."

Bill Farrar, press secretary for Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, understands the insensitivity of the typical firing round. That's why so many directors are being "separated" from City Hall these days in his brief, carefully crafted press releases.

Think of it as splitting up before the divorce proceedings, living in the apartment while the lawyers carve up the house and kids. There's a familiar ring to it. A separation can be amicable, albeit sufferable and life-changing, but it lacks the venom and finality of divorce. With so many department heads on Wilder's chopping block, it was time to make a change in verbiage, Farrar says.

"We're sensitive to the fact that people have worked hard, and people made contributions and are valued. In these circumstances, it's just not as black and white as a termination or a firing — those cold harsh terms that people are used to," Farrar says. "Just because someone has been released doesn't mean you've done a terrible job."

Some aren't so sure. Department heads have been asked to clear their desks within 24 hours, suggesting the separations are a bit more painful in practice. In a real separation you're allowed to pack your own suitcase — and return for toothpaste.

But it's certainly more palpable than the ubiquitous "You're fired," which has experienced a revival, at least in pop culture, a la Donald Trump. En vogue or not, however, it's not exactly resurfacing in practical terms. Hardly ever are people "fired" anymore, says Dafna Eylon, professor of management at the University of Richmond. Eylon, who teaches organizational behavior in the school of business, says the term "fired" has such a negative connotation it's been virtually banned from HR vocabulary.

"Separation" doesn't sit well with Eylon either.

"It's a strange term. It's usually perceived as an interim stage, but one that allows for the possibility of continuing together," she says, cautioning employers who separate employees to consider the potential backlash.

"I think they need to say what it is," Eylon says. "People are astute, people are smart. Just changing the word doesn't change anything. … In general, if people think there is an attempt to dupe them, then people don't respond favorably."

Indeed, Nancy Ross, former longtime director of city juvenile justice services, who was separated from her job by the Wilder administration earlier this month, says those who reach out to console her in her newfound joblessness seem to know what happened.

"In the real world," Ross says, "people who call know you got fired by the mayor." She appreciates Farrar's attempt to make it more digestible, nonetheless.

Farrar says the separations are meant to make the transition easier. The changes at City Hall have been, in many of the cases, merely a consequence of new government.

"When you serve at the pleasure of the administration, you serve at the pleasure of the administration," Farrar says. "Just because someone has been released, it doesn't mean you've done a terrible job." — Scott Bass

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment