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This is the most humane way to lay off a virtual worker

Virtual layoffs are not pleasant, no matter how they happen. But there are ways to make the experience less impersonal or cruel.

This is the most humane way to lay off a virtual worker
[Source Photo: rawpixel]

Layoffs are an unfortunate but regular occurrence in an uncertain economic climate. But in recent times, several companies have landed in hot water for the way they’ve chosen to conduct terminations.

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Better.com, Klarna, and The Wing are just some companies that have conducted mass layoffs via Zoom in the last couple of years. These layoffs generated a lot of controversies and raised several questions: Will massive virtual terminations become the norm? How should companies approach firing someone virtually? Can companies conduct virtual layoffs termination without sacrificing transparency, respect, and empathy?

Fast Company reached out to organizational psychologists and HR experts to get their thoughts on what leaders need to consider before firing someone virtually. Here’s what they have to say:

Do: Treat it like a sensitive conversation

The normalization of hybrid and remote work means that more and more companies will conduct terminations virtually. Cathleen Swody, an industrial/organizational psychologist and managing partner at Thrive Leadership, says that issues that stem from the Better.com layoffs isn’t the fact that they were virtual but how they were executed. “It felt abrupt. They couldn’t ask questions. To be dismissed so quickly, it just adds injury to the process.” In other words, the lack of personalization left many feeling disrespected. “People want to be treated as individuals,” says Swody.

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Companies should treat conversations about layoffs the way they would treat any sensitive discussion, says Andrew Gobran, people operations generalist at Doist, a company that makes productivity software. For example, if the employee is a hybrid worker, but performance reviews are typically done in-person, the company should terminate them in-person. But if difficult conversations often take place over a video call, then that’s how the termination should also take place. “I wouldn’t recommend that people fly across the country to lay people off,” says Swody. “We don’t want it to be the first time they meet their manager.”

Don’t: Read off a script

Swody believes that one of the biggest mistakes a company can make when firing people virtually is reading off a script. This is bad practice whether the termination takes place physically or virtually, but it can come across as more callous because the virtual environment already feels less personal in the first place, says Swody.

In person, if a candidate starts bursting into tears, for example, “I can pass you a box of tissues,” she says. That’s not possible when it’s happening via a computer screen. When conducting a virtual termination, managers must be conscious that they’re actively listening and giving the employee a moment after delivering the news.

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Stephen Fromkin, the chief content officer and co-founder of Talespin, a company that provides leadership and management skills training using virtual reality, says leaders need to be careful about having a “diminished presence” during challenging virtual interactions. That can make the employee feel disrespected, and the employee may leave with a bad impression of the company. “Every interaction the company has shapes the employer brand,” says Gobran. A negative employer brand may make it more difficult for companies to attract future talent and cause morale issues within the company for existing employees, which can lead to disengagement and a drop in productivity.

Do: Ensure that it’s not a complete surprise to the individual

When it comes to the decision to terminate, both Gobran and Swody say that it shouldn’t be a complete surprise to the individual. Before the termination, there should have been multiple conversations around performance concerns and opportunities for the individual to correct and improve their performance. “When you consider anyone going to work, no one goes and say, I’m going to do the worst possible job today,” says Gobran.

The situation does get trickier when the termination has nothing to do with an individual performance. For example, a company may need to lay off employees due to a restructuring, acquisition, or budget constraint. In this instance, a company-wide announcement to talk about high-level changes may be appropriate, says Swody. This might look like senior leadership announcing a “restructuring, business strategy, or downturn in the market.”

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Such conversations can provide context before a manager, or someone from HR, delivers the news of the layoff to the individual. “I always think it’s better if it’s somebody who knows them, somebody who has a working relationship with them.” There’s less trauma and employee disrespect that way, says Swody.

Do: Consult the legal team before terminating

When companies lay off or fire their in-office employees, they only have the laws of their HQ to consider. But in a virtual environment, that might not be the case, Swody points out. Their employees might be in a different state or country, subject to a different set of labor laws. That’s why companies need to ensure that they’ve consulted their legal team (or an attorney) to ensure that they comply with the relevant laws and regulations.

Even if differing labor laws aren’t an issue, conducting a virtual termination without consulting an attorney is risky for companies. “There might be some legal complications that haven’t been considered,” says Swody.

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Don’t: Try to rush the process

Finally, Swody recommends that companies take a step back before making decisions about letting people go. In an uncertain business environment, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “rushing from one things to the next.” Companies really need to take a step back and figure out if terminating is the right thing to do, says Swody, and ask themselves questions like what it might mean for employee morale and how it might impact how they come across to their employees and clients.

Letting someone go is never a pleasant experience, but companies don’t necessarily have to do it in a way that burns bridges with their former employees. Gobran believes it can provide the company with “an opportunity to take a difficult process and do it with grace.”

Speaking of the terminated employees, he went on to say, “Even if they’re not happy they’re leaving, they at least feel like okay, as much as I didn’t want to leave, I respect the way that it was handled. I would still recommend the company to someone else and even leave the door open to returning in the future.”

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About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.

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