How not to fire a disgruntled employee

All employees get frustrated, and not all of them express it productively. But termination shouldn’t necessarily be the first option

Woman leaving office with a banker’s box of possessions


Yelp axed staffer Talia Jane for slamming her working conditions in an open letter to CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. We asked the experts for some better, controversy-free ways to deal with disgruntled employees:

Create structures for complaints

“There’s a saying in the tech industry: It’s all fun and games until you grow. Startups generally lack experience in the trenches, in dealing with tough things like failure or bad management. And they’re all about hiring millennials, who are not used to thinking of office politics in the way they comport themselves at work and who have a multitude of channels for expressing their dissatisfaction. This instance at Yelp demonstrates is that the company had not built a culture that allows people to freely express themselves and speak truth to power. Jane felt compelled to air her dirty laundry in a very public forum, so clearly there wasn’t a vehicle in place for her to safely express those concerns internally and give management a chance to adjust its behaviour. Somewhere along the way, Yelp missed the opportunity to build into its culture appropriate mechanisms for employees to express those concerns. As the company grows, it will need to learn how to manage that risk better.”

Ellyn Winters-Robinson, President & CMO, Ignition CommunicationsCambridge, Ont.

Explain the rules to employees

“Yelp had cause for discharge in this case. It is a U.S. company, but the same would apply here: In Canadian jurisprudence, breach of duty of fidelity and breach of confidentiality are both cause for discharge. I’ve never had a case where an employee has contested being fired for this kind of behaviour. Still, I’d ask whether Yelp’s leadership explained to its employees the importance of confidentiality and not disparaging the company in public. Its leadership should have made sure everyone knew that if they had a problem with the company, they should not go to the public but should rather take it to a manager to try to solve it internally. And, if that didn’t work, that they could go above their managers and talk to HR.”

Howard Levitt, Senior partner, Levitt & Grosman LLP, Toronto

Channel staff frustration

“In these situations, companies should recognize there’s also a potential for transformation. Passively disengaged employees just come to work, don’t say anything and don’t really care for the organization; they present a real challenge. But Jane was an actively disengaged employee. Her letter demonstrated some passion; there’s energy in what she wrote. There was an opportunity to take what she said and learn from it. And there was an opportunity to try to find a place for her in another department—maybe by taking a role in communications or HR. Yelp would have benefited from trying to make her an ally instead of allowing her to become an adversary.”

David Zinger, CEO, David Zinger Associates, Winnipeg

Balance the narrative

“This entire experience is very similar to the issue Amazon had to deal with not long ago when the New York Times totally slammed it in an article about its treatment of employees. It’s important in these instances to provide a fact-based narrative. Part of what Jane wrote might have been true, and part of what she said may have been untrue. Whatever the case, Yelp could have handled it better with a two-pronged approach. First, to ask, in a public way, ‘how might we do better?’ to let people know that while the company is not perfect, it really does care about its employees and really is striving to improve. And second, to get some of its allies to chime in so there were other voices in the conversation. Surely there are other people who might have felt differently about what it’s like to work at Yelp—perhaps some longtime employees or alumni who had great experiences working at the company. These people could have said, ‘We read this report, and what was in it wasn’t our experience. Was it yours?’ That would get a conversation started.”

Randall Craig, CEO, 108 Ideaspace, Toronto