It was nice working together

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on the most brutal – yet arguably creative – ways of letting people go

I knew I was about to be fired when a secretary said the head office had hand-delivered a document for me. I was in the head office at the time, which meant the newspaper boss was doing something that had to be done in writing. 

It meant I was either being promoted or sacked. And I could guess which.

Not all companies give staff their “marching orders” in a formal way. I remember some years ago reporting about a struggling Singapore company. The owner rang the fire alarm to get everyone out of the building, and then locked the doors. Permanently. There you have it: the whole company, instantly “downsized.”

Accounting firms, of course, behave better. Or do they?

A firm in the United States recently sacked a woman by phone. The staff member, who worked at the Florida office of a company called 1-800Accountant, clearly didn’t like getting the bad news that way. Her colleagues noticed she was repeatedly pressing one button on her computer keyboard: the delete key. When she had finally left the scene, it was discovered that she had deleted 17,000 files.

That news item from Florida coincided with one about accountants in Australia being advised by specialists that they should fire people more often – not staff, but clients. A consultancy called ChangeGPS told an audience of accountants this month that during these difficult times, it was more important than ever to sack clients who misbehave, as there was enough stress around already.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, accountants in the United Kingdom discovered that one of the most common perceived forms of accounting misbehaviour – claiming outrageous items on expense accounts – might not be such a big problem after all. A larger number of people have the opposite problem. A study conducted by The Accountancy Partnership showed that 65 percent of small business owners in the U.K. failed to file their expenses because they were put off by anecdotes of cheeky claims getting people into trouble. The research showed that claims had been filed for pink tutus, a cremation, live lobsters, and a tantric workshop session. I remember a school administrator in Hong Kong who notoriously got sacked for trying to put a meal of oysters and wine on his expense account.

Yet the big picture suggests that business owners and their accounting advisors erred too far on the side of caution, the researchers said. “A mass purchase of sex toys from China may have led to some giggles at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs but, as an expense for an e-commerce business, it is legitimate and allowable,” wrote Alexis Davis, a commentator on the study.

Still, after years as a journalist, I think people in finance and accounting generally fire staff more elegantly than folk in the media. One newspaper company I worked for in Hong Kong sacked me and most of the rest of the staff by FedEx one weekend. We all got “surprise packages” hand-delivered on a Saturday morning containing letters telling us that we were no longer needed.

That was considered relatively polite by media standards. A journalist friend at another newspaper was irritated to discover one morning that his staff card wouldn’t let him through the turnstiles at the building where he worked. The woman next to him had the same problem.

The guard stepped forward. “Card not working, you sacked,” he explained. To speed up a restructuring process, the boss had simply turned off security access for half the staff.

Yet there was a recent sad tale from the finance world too. A New York broker named Bruce Reid took out a “wrongful termination” lawsuit after he was sacked in 2014. The case has been repeatedly delayed, and still hasn’t had a single court hearing.

He recently discovered why, Bloomberg reported. His lawyer never actually got around to filing the case. By coincidence, the law firm he used was called Sack & Sack.

He’s now suing the people who sacked him, and Sack & Sack too.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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