Law firms and law schools have been having some difficult conversations lately: breakup conversations. As the legal job market continues to shrink, law firms and law schools have been faced with tough decisions about separating with attorneys and professors, respectively. However necessary they might be, breakups are difficult, uncomfortable, and stressful for all parties involved. Harsh words are often spoken, and once they are it’s almost impossible to take them back.  Go about them the wrong way and you could end up damaging your own reputation (as Albany Law School has had to learn the hard way).

Departures, like breakups, are really all about messaging. Institutions never want to appear to be vindictive or bitter towards departing employees. From a PR standpoint, it’s important to remember that those on the outside—who haven’t seen the messy details of the relationship up close—are naturally more likely to sympathize with an individual who has just lost her livelihood than a faceless entity.

There’s something about being negative towards colleagues that turns people off.

In order to avoid significant public embarrassment or a Fatal Attraction-type situation, institutions should follow these “departure etiquette” tips and maybe, just maybe, both parties can move on unscathed:

1) Be Short & Direct. Employers need to be brief, upfront, and direct.  Letting people go is unpleasant, and it’s best not to drag it out.

2) Be Honest. Recently, Albany Law School came under major fire when it attributed its layoff of tenured professors on the school’s troubled financial situation, only to have the dismissed profs bring in an independent account to counter that the school was “in very strong financial condition.” Institutions need to be open and honest about their reasons for letting employees go, in order to avoid increased controversy.

3) Listen. Employees who are blindsided with dismissals are undoubtedly going to have some strong feelings about the situation, and while it might be awkward, they should be given the chance to speak their minds directly to decision makers.

4) Avoid Trash Talk. In order to maintain an appropriate level of professionalism throughout the departure process, it’s best that institutional leaders avoid any kind of personal attacks on dismissed employees, internally or externally.

5) Buy Some Good Will (sometimes literally). There’s something about being negative towards colleagues that turns people off. It’s the reason why job applicants instinctively know (or should instinctively know) not to speak ill of their former employers. The same principle applies to employers who ask for comment about former employees. Short of putting their own reputations on the line (by, for instance, giving glowing recommendation letters to those they know to be bad employees), they should be as positive about their former employees as possible. It makes both parties look better, and at very little cost buys a measure of goodwill from former employees who don’t need any encouragement to become bitter. External praise is a small but important complement to whatever monetary compensation (through severance or other measures) the firm or school can afford. Nothing is easy when it comes to breakups, but sometimes a healthy amount of goodwill can avoid much more expensive—and embarrassing—public feuds.

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