Walking papers. Pink slips. Letting people go. Downsizing, RIF-ing -- whatever you call it, being fired is not fun, even if George Clooney is the one doing it.
In his new hit movie, "Up in the Air," the debonair Mr. Clooney plays a gentle, caring corporate "termination engineer" who flies around the country firing people at the behest of other companies who don't want to do it themselves.
It's not personal, he tells each employee. In fact, it may be the moment you finally can chase your dream of becoming a gourmet chef.
Painful stuff -- especially when Mr. Clooney's company decides to start doing the firings via video teleconference -- and, in this era, timely, declared New York Times columnist Frank Rich. Based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, the film, Mr. Rich wrote, "captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession as vividly as a far more dour Hollywood product of 70 years ago, 'The Grapes of Wrath,' did the vastly different landscape of the Great Depression."
Yes, but is it true? Just how accurate a portrayal of your friendly corporate terminator is "Up in the Air" anyway?
Not very, say those who actually do it for a living.
"A lot of human resources people were excited when we found out that George Clooney was going to be playing one of us, and the movie is very good -- but it doesn't reflect HR consulting as I know it," said Sanjay Sathe, founder and CEO of RiseSmart, a Silicon Valley-based outplacement firm, which provides job-search help and career coaching to laid-off employees.
"People who are laid off don't want a generic pep talk from someone they don't know. I can't imagine that tactic being as effective in real life as it's portrayed in the movie."
"I found the movie entertaining, but it's actually highly inaccurate," added Rebecca Heyman, a 33-year-old consultant for San Francisco-based TriNet, which provides payroll, benefits and human resource services -- including hiring and firing -- for about 8,000 small companies.
Layoffs are actually a very small part of her overall job description, and she's never heard of a company that specializes only in "outsourced termination," as it's called in HR parlance.
Nonetheless, Ms. Heyman has walked into plenty of company meeting rooms and fired people she'd never met before. The key, she said, is to do it in a way that is humane and helpful to the employee, while limiting the company's legal exposure.
In one scene in the film, Mr. Clooney warns his protege that an angry employee might come away from such a meeting determined to sue for wrongful dismissal -- and, indeed, there's a fantasy sequence of one fellow shredding documents, pouring bleach into the coffee and ultimately grabbing a gun.
Employee violence following a firing is extremely rare, stressed Ms. Heyman, who saw the film Wednesday night. It also got another important detail wrong -- the notion that Mr. Clooney works solo.
"I would never terminate an employee without a representative of the company present," she said. "That just doesn't happen."
In fact, she said she meets with the company's CEO or manager beforehand, serving as a kind of a coach, going over the script and, ideally, having the manager do the talking while she sits nearby with outplacement materials -- references, networking information and severance details.
But it's important not to deviate from the company's message, she and other consultants said.
One of the biggest mistakes middle managers make when delivering bad news is "to tell employees that they would have done things differently, but the choice wasn't theirs," said Lori Luba, branch manager in the Pittsburgh office of Robert Half International, a professional staffing firm.
While it takes the heat off the manager temporarily, she said, "it sends the message that they are out of sync with the company's leaders, which is disconcerting to staff who remain."
Mr. Clooney's instructions to his protege -- to never tell the fired employee she was sorry -- were right on target, Ms. Heyman added.
"They're the ones being fired, not you. This is not about you or your feelings."
It's also important, she added, never to touch or hug the employee out of sympathy, a gesture that could easily be misconstrued.
But Ms. Heyman said she would never sit blocking the door while the employee is seated in a corner. And neither she nor Mr. Sathe had ever heard of video teleconferencing, a key (spoiler alert) plot development in the film.
"I'm not aware of any company using Skype to fire people," Mr. Sathe said. "To me, that's absurd and just about the worst thing you could possibly do. Layoffs should be done face to face, and that starts at the very top."
Actually, though, "I know people who've been fired by text message," said Jim Stroud, a marketing consultant who manages The Searchologist (thesearchologist.com), a recruiter training site.
And, Mr. Stroud added, he knows people in the industry who have been hired to fire employees -- on their own, without company officials present -- "although they've been there on a speaker phone."
There are so many ways to fire people these days, actually, for better or worse.
Radio Shack got plenty of negative publicity in 2006 when it fired 400 employees via e-mail. In 2005, the software company Oracle sent notices to employees by overnight mail -- containing either a job offer or a severance package.
But the film's premise that people doing the firing are emotionally detached is not true, argued Mr. Sathe.
"People go into human resources, as opposed to, say, finance or accounting, because they enjoy working with people, they genuinely like people and empathize with them ... my experience is that layoffs are usually very difficult emotionally on HR people."
Still, as the economy limps along, will employees be seeing more strangers -- handsome or not -- come to bid them so long and have fun with that gourmet cooking gig?
Despite recent growth in the outsourced human resources industry, most companies will continue to handle firings themselves -- with consultants brought in to help plan the layoffs or, like his company, to help them find new jobs, Mr. Sathe said. And there's one small detail in the film that cuts a little too close for comfort, he added.
"I wish Clooney's character were not called a transition consultant in the film because we call our employees transition specialists."
Just as Mr. Clooney delivers inspirational speeches to those he's just fired, "We also give pep talks -- not about building empires, but about how marketable they are based on a review of their backgrounds," Mr. Sathe said.
"We might say, 'Hey, have you considered applying for a job in the health care sector? Because your experience is great and would transfer very well to that industry.' But I guess that kind of pep talk would not sell many movie tickets, would it?"
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at 412-263-1949 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .