The SDRC Story: How NOT to Fire a 7 year-old
Sunday, April 27, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most ignominious events in corporate HR history. It happened before social media, widespread internet access, and the 24x7 news cycle, so today is it barely remembered. But at the time, it was a major scandal.
Back in the mid-90’s, Take Our Daughters To Work Day (TODTWD) was all the rage. Started in 1993 by the Ms. Foundation, it was an effort to allow girls (and eventually boys) to explore careers at an age when they are more flexible in terms of gender roles. It also strove to address self-esteem issues unique to girls. Companies big and small held TODTWD events.
On Thursday, April 27, 1995 Structural Dynamics Research Corporation (SDRC) was hosting its TODTWD. SDRC was an engineering consulting firm founded by University of Cincinnati engineering students in 1967. They were mostly known for their finite element modeling software, IDEAS. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SDRC One of the engineers, Bill Means, brought his daughter, Marisa Means, 7, to work with him. She was looking forward to a day of watching her dad at work, something many of us don’t see much of (although lately, some of us are seeing more of our parents in a work environment than we might like to).
Instead, her father was called into his boss’ office and summarily dismissed. Security escorted both Bill and his daughter out of the building. Young Marisa was in tears, asking if her daddy’s firing were somehow her fault. SDRC had been going through financial difficulties brought on by accounting irregularities. The company had been forced to restate earnings from 1992-1994. As a result, Mr. Means and 140 other employees were let go in a cost-cutting move, although none as traumatically as Mr. Means, and none in such a dehumanizing way as in front of their daughter.
The backlash was quite severe, even by today’s “cancel culture” standards. The story stayed in the local headlines for several weeks. SDRC issued apologetic platitudes, indicating that they didn’t know the daughter was there and no, they wouldn’t re-hire him. As it turned out, after weeks of bad publicity, on top of the already very serious financial malfeasance charges being levied against the company, the company reversed course. They offered Mr. Means his job back (he said no) and they fired his boss, Donald Newman, and the HR director, Ed Neenan.
Unfortunately, there are plentiful stories of people being fired in inhumane ways – while they or a spouse or child is undergoing cancer treatment, or after the loss of a loved one, or under painful and difficult circumstances. LinkedIn is full of stories of bad bosses and awful firings. And this story, in the grand scheme of things, is not as bad as many others out there.
I relate this story to remind us ALL to treat one another with dignity and respect. How you treat someone when you are firing them speaks directly to who you are as a person. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/short-meaningful-conversation-paul-risk/?trackingId=MzHZeVW%2BQ4jywPTS2XAmEw%3D%3D
Before ending someone's job, do a little research and homework. Mr. Neenan was quoted as saying, “…we had no idea his daughter was in the building.” https://www.upi.com/Archives/1995/05/03/Daughter-goes-to-work-sees-daddy-fired/9119799473600/
That is an awful excuse. How does the VP of HR not know that the employee’s daughter is in the building on Take Our Daughters to Work Day? Shouldn’t he have at least asked? Had he done so, he could have simply terminated Mr. Means the next day, a Friday, and there would have been no story, no issue whatsoever. Mr. Neenan was fired not just because his response to the ensuing PR nightmare was tone deaf, he was let go because he didn’t do the minimum standard for his job: Don’t cause the company greater harm than firing the employee. This means, generally, not opening up the company to lawsuits or bad publicity.
This also highlights the trickle-down effect of malfeasance at the top of the company. Because of the behavior of the CEO, CFO, and several other senior executives, 140 employees lost their jobs, and little Marisa Means had to undergo a terrible trauma.
Bill Means quickly found a job at GE, where he had been recruited from by SDRC two years earlier. He is now retired, after a long and distinguished career in IT.
Marisa Means recovered from the trauma, went on to graduate from Xavier University and became an auditor for a large bank. No surprise she did not go into HR.
Ed Neenan’s career in corporate HR was effectively finished. He became an executive recruiter. Ironically, this position focuses almost exclusively on hiring.
The senior executives had to pay $1.5 million in fines to settle charges against them by the SEC. https://www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/lr15325.txt
SDRC was eventually sold to EDS.