Illustration by Erin Taj

The White-Collar Walk of Shame

Inside the humiliating HR practice of being escorted out of the building

I was fired as a writer’s assistant on The Cleveland Show because I couldn’t type fast enough. You had to be a veritable court reporter to keep up with Seth MacFarlane’s staff of snarky motor-mouths, and I was hunting-and-pecking and missing jokes. After the executive producers gave me the axe, a lady from Fox HR walked me back to my office to grab my coat and papers — but no scripts, she specified. It was heartbreaking, and still bums me out to recall being paraded past former coworkers and friends as I was hurried out the door.

In a fictional yet maybe more real-world example, on The Office, Michael Scott had been a devoted Dunder Mifflin employee for nearly two decades — or “9,986,000 minutes” at the time of his final Dundies Awards — which made it all the more humiliating when he was escorted out of the office (the paper company’s vice president, played by Idris Elba, discovers Scott’s been haphazardly labeling Dunder Mifflin customer lists with his new company’s name after giving his two weeks’ notice). To make matters worse, Scott is denied an opportunity to address his beloved coworkers one last time before being unceremoniously walked to the parking lot by Hank, his longtime loyal security guard. “I always thought Michael got a bad rap,” remarks coworker Kevin, looking on sorrowfully. “He’s a good guy. And super funny.”

“Two Weeks” (2009)

Getting walked out by HR has become a sitcom trope because it’s so common IRL, says Robert Farmer, an expert with the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade organization for HR professionals. Farmer tells me that SHRM suggests best practices on handling terminations, and for some industries one of them is escorting people off the premises like criminals. “I oversee Human Resources for the Missoula Federal Credit Union,” he says. “Once we end the relationship, we do not leave the former employee alone.”

In those cases, a supervisor escorts the person to their workstation to collect any personal items and then walks them out of the building, just as I was. “It’s very common in our industry — for security reasons, as well as to mitigate potential violence, theft or disruptions,” Farmer explains.

Stress is obviously high during firings for everyone involved, and people may not be exhibiting their best selves. Those with bruised egos are often the most unpredictable, explains Heather Rubner, a veteran HR executive in the online advertising industry. “We fired one guy who was extremely rude and obnoxious. On the way out, he screamed, ‘This is a shit place to work!’”

Terry Petracca, MEL’s HR columnist, says she has walked “dozens upon dozens upon dozens” of people out since the 1970s, when her career began. She recalls an instance several years ago when a guy broke down in tears because his wife had been laid off earlier that morning from a different company — not exactly something you want on display for everyone else to see, Petracca says, which is why walkouts almost always occur at the very end of the day. That was the case for Charles, a director of movies and miniseries at NBC, who was walked out by network security at dusk. “He asked for my corporate card and ID and cut them up in front of me in the parking lot. Then he went back into the building, and I sat in the car and began sobbing.”

Depending on the industry, even retrieving personal belongings can be a no-go — lest someone is tempted to load a year’s worth of Slack conversations onto a thumb drive on the way out, which could divulge proprietary information to competitors. This is why even those who resign, like Michael Scott, are walked out: They’re suddenly viewed as a threat — for a variety of reasons.

Jim, a 30-something in digital media, was told he couldn’t stick around after giving his notice because he would “poach” his employees and take them along with him to his next job. “Weirdly, though, my email was kept active for nearly a month afterward, and they were kind enough to later let me return on a Saturday to pick up all of my stuff. Plus, I had all of my employee’s personal emails and phone numbers so it wasn’t like I couldn’t get ahold of them again. Frankly, it just felt mean-spirited — like, ‘You can’t break up with us; we break up with you.’ It worked, too, since it felt like I was fired, and a few of my former colleagues figured that’s what had happened when they saw me being escorted from the premises by the head of HR.”

It seems as long as employees have existed in America, so too has the practice of emotionlessly ushering them the fuck out — especially in formal industries where companies seek to control the message. Eleanor, a 27-year-old at a Boston investment company, was tasked with leading three rounds of walkouts before being walked out herself. “I would escort the person being laid off to the fourth floor and then rush back upstairs to gather their personal belongings, laptop and phone. Once they stepped out of their meeting with HR, I’d return everything and inform them their phones and laptops had been confiscated. I was instructed not to apologize or look the person in the eye as I walked them out of the building. It was awful.”

A few years later, when tides shifted and the bell tolled for Eleanor, she too was met by a woman carrying her coat and purse. “She neither apologized nor made eye contact with me as she walked me out of the building.”

And then there are the walkouts that make you run away, as Eva did when she was let go from a high-end jewelry store in Southern California. “The owner of the store had been increasingly inappropriate and confrontational with me from the time I started,” she recalls. “He made a lot of comments about my clothes, like, ‘I hope there’s nothing under that skirt.’ It was awful, but I needed the job. On the day they let me go, the owner said he would walk me out and asked the manager to go ahead and put my things in the car. When we got out of the door, he gave me a hug, grabbed my ass and pulled me into him. I just ran to my car and started crying because I’d never been fired before and I was in shock. I don’t know if it was heartbreaking so much as soul-compromising.”

The silver lining in all of this? Thanks to social media, the sun might be setting on the white-collar walk of shame. “Now someone can go on Glassdoor or Twitter and completely blast an employer,” Rubner says. As such, to give the appearance of a more mutual decision, companies may allow people more time to gather their belongings and walk out with their heads held high.

Perhaps the white-collar world could take a cue from the band Widespread Panic. “We were working our fifth consecutive show in one of the outer venues at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and hadn’t received crew shirts as we’d been promised,” says Sugah, a truck loader for the band. “So me and another stagehand, who was probably drunk, pulled a box of shirts and got busted. After they fired us and led us out of the trailer, the entire crew was lined up on either side of the path, shoulder-to-shoulder, as if to give us a sendoff as we walked out the gate. It was righteous.”