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Firing Employees Remotely—Three Guiding Principles

March 30, 2022, 8:00 AM

Imagine you are one of hundreds of remote work-from-home employees called to attend a video conference with the CEO at the start of your workday. You think this must be the big announcement of the new product line or sales plan, only to find out that you, along with your co-workers, are summarily terminated as one of hundreds of “video-tiles” on the screen.

Pandemonium breaks out as some cry; some lash out and the conversation deteriorates into a hodge-podge of accusations and disbelief.

This is not an imaginary tale, but reflects reality where recently Better.com CEO Vishal Garg sparked an immediate backlash among its employees and the public when he laid off 900 employees over Zoom, and followed it up with allegations that some employees had stolen from the company by only working two hours a day.

Garg ended up taking a leave of absence, and the company did a top to bottom independent review of its culture, and revisited leadership positions by recruiting a new board chairman, president, and chief human resources officer.

Ultimately, Garg returned to work, but not without first causing damage to the brand and apologizing for his admitted missteps and its impact on employees.

If you want to avoid the hit to your company’s bottom line, retain employees, and the inevitable effect on morale, layoffs or terminations online require some deft handling. Three guiding principles should be kept in mind.

Be Prepared

First, you must think the entire process through before implementing. Have the wording of the message flushed out—do not “wing it.” Also, transparency as to the business rationale is critical.

It’s also important to anticipate the various questions, such as return of equipment, administrative issues, and “next steps” from the terminated employees, such as severance and benefits.

Where severance is offered, incorporate that as part of the message and provide an overview of continued benefits. Most employees’ first thoughts are about the impact on family and health care.

Another factor to consider is whether you will offer any transition or outplacement services. Such efforts help afford employees an opportunity to find a new job and puts the company’s “money where its mouth is” in mitigating the impact of termination.

Finally, as unemployment benefits would most likely be available to all, inform them of the safety nets available and how to apply. This meets the employees where they are—how can I afford this?—and will be foremost in their minds.

Be Respectful

Next you will need to provide both the space and time to show respect to the employees at each step of the layoff process. Understanding and “stepping into their shoes” is a critical mindset to deliver what is difficult and life-changing news.

Zoom minimizes the “human” approach to a degree that most employees will feel the utter lack of respect being lumped into one size fits all. Who delivers the message is important. If possible, have the direct manager (a familiar face) or an executive level director deliver the message to show the action has been undertaken with respect and in a serious manner.

Try to avoid the mass layoff by video conference where employees are muted and have no opportunity to respond or react. The better approach is to conduct calls or conferences individually to provide both time for reaction, and this provides a level of respect and avoids embarrassment of the employee as well.

If it must be done with multiple employees, summarize the situation in the general meeting and then put individuals in separate break out rooms and say you will address each person’s situation to allow both space and afford them the dignity to respond.

It’s also important to be cautious of the tenor and tone of any messaging.

Finally, because video conferences can be recorded, ensure no recordings are made, or you just might see it on YouTube or Twitter within the hour.

Be Compassionate

It’s important to deliver the message with compassion. If the direct boss is not a good communicator, find someone who can share the news in a way that is not cold or uncaring. Stating that you know the news will have a deep impact and you want to support them as best you can is the way to go.

Always be professional and transparent. By setting out the grounds for the layoff, not only is there a context for the employee, but it also protects the company from any discrimination or wrongful termination cases.

Another way to show compassion is to provide for employee counseling at the end of the call or following with an email and phone number to allow the employees to follow up.

Some companies will have the luxury to avoid any layoffs online, but as the hybrid workplace prevails more and more, it may be unavoidable. Necessity is the mother of invention, and everyone will need to adapt to the medium while addressing the underlying dignity and respect concerns that most employees still value, whether they are physically present or zooming in. The sooner companies recognize both the limitations and the opportunities for hybrid workforces, the more they will thrive.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Walter M. Foster is an attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot LLC. He is a commercial litigator who practices in employment, municipal and pension law, and business litigation, providing counsel to private and public sector employers on legal and regulatory workplace standards.