In recent years, semantics have become all the rage at most organizations. Consider the fact that companies now use terms such as “reorganization”, “restructuring”, “replaced”, “released” or “relieved of duties” to describe firing someone. As a matter of fact, organizations are going to more and more extremes to avoid using the “F” word. While this in and of itself is disturbing, perhaps most disturbing is the fact that more and more organizations are taking these actions by informing the departing employee over the phone. Where in the world did civility go?  That’s right, many of these supposedly “top notch” organizations don’t even have the common courtesy to talk to their employees face-to-face to let them know their employment is being terminated.

Consider the following high profile cases:

Yahoo: September 6, 2011 – “Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO), the premier digital media company, today announced a leadership reorganization under which the Board of Directors has appointed Timothy Morse interim Chief Executive Officer, effective immediately, replacing Carol Bartz, who has been removed by the Board from her role as Chief Executive Officer. “ Ooops, another “R” word! And they continue, the headline in fact states that Yahoo announces a leadership “Reorganization” – absolutely no mention of Ms. Bartz being fired. But she knew she was fired. In an email Ms. Bartz wrote: “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward.”

Penn State University: Amid child molestation allegations by a Penn State assistant coach employed under Joe Paterno’s leadership, the legendary coach was “removed” from his coaching position. In this case, although Mr. Paterno was a 40+ year employee, he was not extended the courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. Rather, Paterno received an envelope at his home 15 minutes before the board of trustees made its announcement to the media, a source with first-hand knowledge told ESPN’s Joe Schad. The note inside contained a phone number for Paterno to call. He did so and was told by one of two board members on the receiving end, “You are relieved of your duties.”

Chicago-based law firm Smith Amundsen LLC: On February 4, 2008, Smith Amundsen Marketing Director was fired while she was still on maternity leave. Not only did the law firm terminate her employment while she was on maternity leave, they terminated her employment over the telephone. In that conversation, Makowski was told that her position was being eliminated as part of an organizational restructuring. By the way, this termination has resulted in a pregnancy discrimination/FMLA suit.

Lessons for HR: The manner in which employees are fired, reorganized, removed, released, relieved of duties etc. is something all professional Human Resources managers and direct supervisors should take seriously. No matter what you call it, you’re still firing someone. And the manner in which you handle that firing can make a huge difference in whether that former employee seeks legal representation. After all, it’s not whether someone is fired that leads to litigation, it’s how they perceive they were treated. All HR Managers should ask themselves one critical question when making employment decisions, “Is this how I would want to be treated?” Would you want to be informed that you’ve been “relieved of your duties” over the phone?

Remember, a rose by any other name still smells just as bad… and in worst case scenarios can lead to litigation.