Unfiring: Re-Recruitment Models

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Are IBM, the IRS and your local high school fire-rehire trailblazers?

“Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me – I quit.’” –Bill Maher


What is a recruiter supposed to do if a candidate she placed is fired? Specifically, and in addition to any expressions of regret, acts of contrition and patches to be put on the client relationship, what about the fired candidate?

The knee-jerk “dead man walking” response is the most obvious: The former recruit vanishes into a black hole, preferably to be flushed from your corporate memory and Blackberry. Of course, the smart thing to do is, upon notification of the firing, to find out what happened, even perhaps to get the recruit’s side of things. Not infrequently, the person doing the firing got it backwards: He’s the one who should have been fired.

Sacked from a Job That Was in the Bag

Some years back, I was fired, for a kind of whistle-blowing about a cosmetic product I was vetting and copywriting for a U.S. nutraceutical company. Just days after I had been praised to high heaven by the company president (in a mass-emailed message to key staff), as the company’s creative copywriting “guru”, I was “let go”. It seems that the email I sent him in the few intervening days was my undoing. What did I tell him?

I told him that the claims for the key ingredient being considered for a new skin cream had zero scientific support and otherwise only a mercilessly negative review from a very prominent celebrity cosmetologist. I added that this would make the company’s standard FAQ and “research” pages problematic.

My guess is that I had created a digital trail that could be followed if unhappy customers or watchdogs started snooping and complaining, which indeed was the kind of attention and publicity the company eventually got for some of its practices—including commentary in Harper’s Magazine and in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce.

Like Rebooking Elvis?

But, suppose that a firing is justified. What then? Rehiring of laid-off staff is both commonplace and smart, as shall be explained in a separate, follow-up article. However, rehiring of fired staff is a much less conventional outcome—at least in the recruiting industry. Not only is re-placement of the fired candidate in any new job unlikely, his rehiring by the same company is about as likely as the Las Vegas Sands rebooking Elvis anytime soon. Both, “dead men”.

The Wisdom of High School Principals

There is, however, one industry in which such re-engagement of dismissed recruits is quite common, if not universal. In this industry, after being terminated, the recruit is, after an appropriate period of time has passed, allowed to return. That industry is high school.

High school administrations utilize two kinds of student “lay-offs” and one kind of “firing”. The former two counterparts to lay-offs comprise temporary cancellations of classes for reasons like snow storms and individual suspensions, for misbehavior. The equivalent of firing is student expulsion, usually for something truly egregious—or more recently, because of “zero tolerance” policies, for erstwhile wholly innocuous behavior like drawing a rocket in your elementary school notebook (conditioning, some say, for a future of draconian regulation).

Often, expelled students are reinstated after a review, even though the term of expulsion can be as long as a full academic year. Presumably, that is sufficient time for thoughtful reflection, self-rehabilitation, skill upgrades and possibly for a change of administrative staff and/or school policies—all of which may make the prospects for a successful and constructive return excellent.

The Harvard Hard Line vs. West Virginia University’s Softer Approach

So why isn’t this just as common in the recruitment industry? I don’t imagine you’ve seen many employee, company or recruiter handbooks or explicit policy statements that deal with, not to mention countenance re-hiring of fired employees. Compare this, from the Anaheim California High School District PDF, article 8705.02:

The Board of Trustees offers a readmission process for expelled students to assist with their return to the district after the period of expulsion. The readmission process involves a team consisting of the student, the parent/guardian, the Superintendent’s designee and, in many cases, outside agencies.”

Most corporations probably operate the way Harvard—whose endowment surpasses the collective capitalization of many of them—does, as stated in its student handbook:

“A student who is expelled can never be readmitted and restored to good standing.”

Adopting a somewhat more liberal policy, West Virginia University displays the kind of flexibility toward its recruited students that corporations may want to emulate, although perhaps with a shorter, less severe term of banishment than that of WVU, given that the workplace tends to evolve faster than the classroom:

“After five calendar years from the effective date of academic dismissal, any student who has been dismissed shall, upon written application, be considered for reinstatement to the University, with the terms of reinstatement to be established by the college or school entered. Failure to meet these terms will result in permanent academic expulsion.”

In addition to being, in many instances, fair to the candidate, re-hiring of a fired recruit—if not at the initial company–can be cost-effective and otherwise efficient in terms of time and energy. Instead of starting at square-one in the vetting process, the recruiter merely has to update his files on the candidate, with specific attention to two areas: skill/performance/expectations updates and review of the toxic relationship between employer and employee that precipitated the firing.

Any Chance?

Not only may the candidate have changed through rehabilitation, but also policies at the company under which he was terminated may have been modified or scrapped, whatever personality conflicts that underlay the firing may—through transfers, retirements, lay-offs, firing or resignation of the embroiled personnel—no longer be a risk, or the new position involves duties and interactions that draw upon the candidate’s strengths, rather than weaknesses or sensitivities.

So what are a candidate’s chances of being rehired after being fired? Here are some hints as to what the fired employee can expect:

  • IBM: “..a story appeared in Personnel Today that quoted Tim Ringo, head of IBM Human Capital Management, as saying that IBM could – notice the word could– reduce its workforce to 100,000 by 2017 by firing 300,000 of its workers and then rehiring them as independent contractors using a crowdsourcing strategy.”—article, www.spectrum.ieee.org, May7, 2010.
    • IBM issued a strong denial of any such plan; however, that rehiring card is now in the broader business zone’s deck, if not in IBM’s hand. Although this may not be the fire-rehire scenario  and model recruiters and candidates want, it still counts as one.
  • The IRS (Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act [“HIRE”] provisions, IR-2010-33, March 18, 2010): “Two new tax benefits are now available to employers hiring workers who were previously unemployed or only working part time. These provisions are part of the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act enacted into law today. Employers who hire unemployed workers this year (after Feb. 3, 2010 and before Jan. 1, 2011) may qualify for a 6.2-percent payroll tax incentive, in effect exempting them from their share of Social Security taxes on wages paid to these workers after March 18, 2010. This reduced tax withholding will have no effect on the employee’s future Social Security benefits, and employers would still need to withhold the employee’s 6.2-percent share of Social Security taxes, as well as income taxes. The employer and employee’s shares of Medicare taxes would also still apply to these wages. “In addition, for each worker retained for at least a year, businesses may claim an additional general business tax credit, up to $1,000 per worker, when they file their 2011 income tax returns.”
    • An incentive that suggests a business model, this IRS program may, in many instances, be sufficient to offset some of the reasons for some of the past firings and provide recruiter and fired candidate a fiscal foot in the door.
  • Shirley Sherrod, former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, vindicated by release of a full video debunking widely broadcast allegations against her, “politely declined to return to the federal government weeks after she was forced to resign amid a race-laden political controversy.”—Washington Post, August 25, 2010. This constitutes clear evidence that firings are not necessarily irreversible. It also confirms that it takes two to reverse them.
  • Carolyn Kepcher, former Donald Trump staffer: “Fired by Trump, She’s Hired by Microsoft“—MSNBC News, November 28, 2006 (hired for a pilot reality show that never got launched). The message here is that recruiters and fired staff alike needn’t give up on working together after a firing.
  • Susan M. Heathfield, HR expert, writing for About.com: “I would not rehire someone I have fired. This is because I follow all of my recommended steps before I would fire someone. That means that the former employee had every chance to improve.” This falls under the category of “terminated with prejudice”, meaning an employer will not rehire the former employee for a (similar or any) job in the future, “terminated without prejudice” applying in cases such as lay-offs.
  • In the education industry, not only expelled students, but also recruited teaching staff have been reinstated. Last year, Forbes.com picked up a CNN story and reported that a Rhode Island school had made a deal to rehire 93 fired teachers, dismissed for poor student performance. “The school board of the Central Falls School District …Rhode Island high school that fired all its teachers reaches tentative agreement to rehire them. School board had fired 93 teachers…” (Forbes.com summary).
    • One implication of this story is that it may be better to get others fired along with you, to capitalize on the “strength in numbers”.
    • The probability of succeeding getting your job back this way is about the same as the odds against getting all the others to get themselves fired too, save for mass firings over which you will have zero control.

Redeal with the Devil

That’s a lot to ponder. But, If Bill Mather, the comedian quoted at the beginning of this article, were to review these suggestions, omens and portents, he’d probably scan the skies and say, “God, before you rehire Satan, please get him to go easy on the heat. I have a problem with prickly heat.”

The odds of either of those happening, Bill?

About an ice cube’s chance in hell.

Read more in Dismissal

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).