How to get away with sacking

Nov 18, 2016 08.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

EMINENT members of the board of an un-named company sat around the table, wondering what to do with a couple of troublesome employees whom they want to give the sack.

They had been watching the public reactions to sackings by the SMRT, Singapore Table Tennis Association, Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and now, the National Kidney Foundation (NKF).

What an uproar! What controversy! What bad publicity! 

Chairman turned to HR Manager (HRM) to ask what the employer-employee contracts say about termination of employment. The obsequious reply: “Yes, Chairman, we can sack. We won’t have any union problem, Chairman, because they are executives. Don’t worry, Chairman.”

Chairman turned to Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to ask if said employees deserved to be fired. The reply: “Maybe. Maybe not. Depends.”

Chairman barked back: “Depends on what?”

CEO replied: “Like whether we want to do a disciplinary inquiry to make our case for sacking stronger…”

Chairman: “One inquiry enough? Or should they chalk up more demerit points? What if the inquiry turned up nothing?”

CEO replied: “We can do like the SEC and say not a good fit for the company or something. Or we can say it’s for rejuvenation purposes, need young blood and all that. Like the table tennis people.”

Chairman: “I would rather not have to face the media and give reasons. Just look at what that Ellen Lee had to do, talk to TV people and different newspapers… and so many leaks! By the way, none of you should post on social media about this… on pain of… errr…. forced resignation.”

HRM interjected: “Not to worry, Chairman. We don’t deal with eggs or milk, Chairman. Nor are we in the Olympic league…”

CEO looked askance at HRM. Was she subtly telling Chairman that he was not meeting his KPIs? He ventured: “What if it’s a criminal offence?”

Chairman: “Then clearly we have to sack! Have we reported to police yet? What does our legal department say?”

Legal looked up from his stack of documents on the table. He was still trying to figure out the Employment Act and, being far-sighted, at any form legal redress that might be available to sack employees. Unfair dismissal… Hmmm…

Pushing his spectacles back up his nose, Legal cleared his throat noisily and proceeded to give a legal non-answer which flummoxed the board.

They only understood one question he asked: “Any of them pregnant?” He cited chapter and verse of what happened to Faith Community Baptist Church when it sacked a pregnant employee who had an extra-marital affair.

Ominously, he said: “This would bring our company into disrepute. Of course, we can defend ourselves with these precedents…”

Independent Director (ID), known for his kindness and magnanimity, suggested maybe a period of suspension without pay would do while a police report was made.

Then the sacking could come if or when there was a conviction. But Head of Public Communication (HPC) objected immediately: “They can’t still be employed with us while they are being investigated and tried in court! The media will keep referring to them as our employees instead of ex-employees!”

They were in a bit of a pickle. Those troublemakers were causing them more trouble than ever. CEO suggested just paying them off with a golden handshake or retrenchment benefits, which made Chief Financial Officer (CFO) lift his eyebrows so high they reached past his hairline.

He wondered if CEO was stupid. Companies were disguising retrenchments so as not to pay out benefits – and here was this silly guy suggesting paying off people whom they wanted to sack.

CFO said tersely: “But we’re not retrenching. We’re making healthy profits and will be expanding.”

HRM suggested changing the terms of employment immediately from full-time permanent to yearly or six-monthly renewable contracts. That way, she said, the company can just say that the contracts weren’t renewed.

The board mulled over this suggestion in collective silence. Applied to all employees, it might even save the company money in terms of employee benefits.

HRM, encouraged by the silence, suggested that a probation term be added to the contract so that to all intents and purposes, the said employees were told to go because they failed to meet standards.

ID squirmed, wondering if this met rules of corporate governance. He asked timidly if there was any need to even go public with the sackings in the first place. And with luck, the media wouldn’t find out what had happened.

Chairman, who was already late for his golf game, said: “Yes! Yes! Just tell them to go! No need for press release or anything. It’s private company business anyway! We’re not a non-profit company or social enterprise or sports association or charity. It’s nobody’s business but ours!”

HPC interjected: “But these fellows might go and complain to the media. Nowsaday hor, people go to the media all the time when they don’t get paid or get paid late and then I got so much work answering media queries.”

CFO glanced at the man, who is well-known as a nine-to-fiver. He made a mental note to re-check his salary and language levels.

Legal spoke up timorously, suggesting that the board simply say that there were complaints and that it was a reportable offence. But the spokespeople had to steer clear of defamation. “Personal indiscretion” is safe because it is so vague and can be subject to several interpretations, he added.

CEO, thinking that he had better show some leadership, said: “Okay, we have several options: rejuvenation, wrong fit, poor performance, personal indiscretion, retrenchment or contract terms… Which would be best for us?”

ID, for whom this was his first board meeting, realised that he was cognizant of all the facts. “Hmm, what did these two people do by the way?”

All eyes bored into him. With one voice, they said: “They complained about not being paid enough.”

ID said: “Oh. Sack. Must sack.’’


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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