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The Fired Drill

Claim:   Large company effects mass layoff via a fire drill.

LEGEND

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, March 2009]

THIS IS TRUE AND TOOK PLACE IN SINGAPORE

A fire alarm, in a large office building, rang at 4 p.m. when almost all of the company's 500 employees were at work. As usual in such circumtances the entire office was evacuated within 3 mins & every employee gathered outside.

Nothing happened for ten minutes or so and there was no evidence of a fire.

Then the firms Security Officer made an announcement ...

"Dear employees, with melting heart I am making this announcement that for many of you will be your last fire evacuation drill. Due to the recession the company are laying off almost fifty percent of staff. When you move back into the building some of you will discover that your swipe passcard will no longer give you access to the office. If you are among those laid off, go home and all your belongings will be couriered to you tomorrow. The management took this approach to save on overloading the email system with layoff notifications and goodbye messages and also to avoid any violent outbursts inside the office. Hope you have a nice career ahead .. please move forward and try your swipe card."
 

A fire alarm rang at 4 pm in a large office campus when almost all employees were present (approx 5,000 people).

As per past fire-drill practices, the entire office was quickly evacuated within 3 minutes, and all employees gathered outside the complex in designated areas waiting for further announcement.

Before long, the fire drill officer in-charge made the following broadcast over their loud-speakers system:

"My dear colleagues:

With sincere regret, I have been asked to announce that for many of you, this will be your last evacuation drill with us. Due to the on-going recession and bad business climate, the company is laying off almost 50% of its staff.

So when this announcement finishes, I ask all of you to move back into the building. And if your swipe-card does not work, then it means that you have been laid off, in which case you will not be allowed inside, and all your personal belongings will be couriered to you by tomorrow.

The company is using this innovative, never-before approach as we do not want to choke our email system with lay-off notices and farewell messages going by the thousands, and we also wish to avoid any fighting inside the office and the consequent security issues for all staff.

We hope you have had a rewarding career with us. Now please move back inside and good luck to you!"
 

Origins:   This legend has so far circulated online in two forms, one which asserts the uncaring company is located in Singapore, the other which does not specify the location of the firm (and thus leads readers to conclude it's local to them).

Although this tale made its Internet debut in early February 2009, it's actually much older. In 1994 it was heard at the Houston office of a major oil company which at that time was laying off thousands of workers. According to the rumor, managers at the company's New Orleans office — fearing those being laid off might try to sabotage operations — held a fire drill and evacuated the building, then let back inside only those employees being retained.

While widespread layoffs within even previously stable companies and industries are becoming a grim reality as the recession of 2009 takes hold, we've found no evidence that any has been effected by such means. Had one been, it would not have escaped the media's notice, as certainly at least a few of those so discarded would have brought the
matter to the attention of the press.

It's also unlikely the scenario described above could take place in the U.S., as there are a number of reasons why people who lose their jobs to corporate downsizing can't be summarily sent packing with just a moment's notice. For one, the WARN Act requires employers to provide 60 days advance notice for mass layoffs. Also, layoffs entail the completion and signing of a good deal of legal paperwork that could not be accomplished if dismissed employees were simply tricked out the door and immediately sent home. In addition, many employees responding to a fire alarm might very well leave behind vital personal belongings (e.g., car keys, purses, medications) which they could not do without until someone finally got around to couriering them to their homes.

Interestingly, in May 2007 key elements of the legend did come true in Hexham in the U.K. Bosses at the Robbs department store there deliberately set off the fire bell to clear the building of customers and get staff together in one place. At the designated fire point, the 140 members of staff were told the landmark store would be shutting down for good in two weeks; the employees then returned to the building to continue working. Management chose that method of informing the staff because the news that last-ditch efforts to secure a buyer had failed would be out by the end of the day, and management wanted their employees to hear it from them before hearing it from others.

A similar event took place at the Mission Viejo, California, offices of mortgage lender FirstPlus Direct in October 1998. At 5:30 P.M. one evening, employees still in the facility "were told over the loudspeaker there was an emergency and to leave the building" and were searched by guards on their way out. The following morning, employees arriving for work were "handed manila envelopes with termination letters plus forms for extending benefits and reclaiming personal possessions." However, as with the Robbs department store incident, this was an instance of an entire facility's being shut down and all its employees let go, not a case of a selective layoff with re-entry privileges after a fire drill used to separate lucky employees from the suddenly unemployed.

The current legend is a way of putting into words the growing sense of anxiety many feel about the nebulous security of their jobs. As one large company after another gives the axe to significant portions of their workforces, even employees of long standing worry about how long they'll continue to keep their jobs. Could they one day come to work, only to without any advance warning get the dreaded pink slip?

The "fire drill layoff" legend shines a spotlight on the dehumanizing aspect of large-scale downsizings via its focus not on the jobs lost, but on the way those being let go are dismissed. Employees in this tale aren't individually given a heartfelt "Sorry we can't keep you" by the corporation they've been giving their all to, but are instead herded as a group into the parking lot, addressed over a loudspeaker, and told in a brusque manner that if their keys still work they still have their jobs. There is no compassion, no recognition of years of service, no handshake and a "We're sorry to lose you" speech from an immediate supervisor — instead, no one from the company so much as speaks to those being sent away to tell them their services are no longer required. As for those whose key cards still function, the message is clear: they're darned lucky to have kept their jobs, and they might not be that fortunate during the next round of layoffs.

Barbara "survivor gilt" Mikkelson

Last updated:   20 March 2009

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Sources:

    Ivanovich, David.   "Local Firm Lands Kalmykia Deal."
    The Houston Chronicle.   19 September 1994   (Business, p. 1).

    Sims, Paul.   "Store Bosses Set Off Fire Alarm Then Sack Staff in Car Park."
    The Daily Mail.   4 May 2007.

    BBC News.   "Fire Alarm Signals Time on Robbs."
    4 May 2007.

    Campbell, Ronald and Bernard Wolfson.   "Orange County, Calif., Mortgage Firm Closes Quickly."
    Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News.   16 October 1998.

    The Orange County Register.   "Mortgage Firm Closes, Sends Workers Home."
    15 October 1998.