Real Leaders

How Not to Lay Off Employees in the Age of Zoom

Social distancing restrictions aren’t an excuse to cut corners on compassion.

In light of recent economic challenges, countless businesses face the prospect of needing to furlough, limit hours, or at worst, say goodbye to their employees. Layoffs are a crucial strategic measure that must be, above all else, implemented with empathy, compassion, and gratitude for all that those released from the company have done.

But empathy doesn’t always translate well across a computer screen. As the current global situation compels companies to remain remote, HR departments and managers find themselves needing to conduct layoffs over a Zoom video feed rather than via an in-person meeting. The results aren’t always optimal.

In late April, 406 employees at the e-scooter company Bird lost their roles over a Zoom audio call in just two and a half minutes. According to a Verge report on the layoff, the speaker’s camera remained off, and the announcement concluded without any personal reassurance. After the call ended, the ex-employees watched in shock as they were automatically logged out of their email accounts, and their computers switched to a gray lock screen. One moment, those 406 employees were appreciated and valued, part of the family. The next, they were jettisoned like so much unwanted baggage.

This outcome is unacceptable. For employees, losing a job is often a traumatic experience on par with divorce, death, or eviction. The notice marks the loss of an income, community, and professional home; it plunges workers into sudden uncertainty and anxiety. The unexpected negative experience can prompt understandable feelings of resentment and hurt, and compel several to post scathing, brand-damaging reviews of a business’s conduct as an employer.

Make no mistake: the decisions that leaders make during a crisis matter, and there will be consequences for those who choose to expel people without treating them with the respect and care that a colleague deserves. They deserve more than having a door or Zoom window shut in their face.

But even if we put ethics aside, the conduct of virtual layoffs matters from a pragmatic business perspective. In our digital age, an employer’s brand is readily accessible with a quick Internet search. Roughly 70 percent of job searchers consult review platforms before making a career decision. If you received offers from two competing companies, one with an excellent employer brand and one with a subpar one, which would you choose? The answer is obvious and demonstrates exactly how important such branding is in the war for talent.

It’s true that for now, employers are navigating uncharted territory. Few companies have ever needed to make crucial personnel decisions over digital channels, let alone on a large scale. It falls to organizations to create offboarding plans that empower managers to conduct digital layoffs in a compassionate and respectful way.

Sound impossible? Let’s reconsider the Bird example for a moment.

In our hypothetical re-do, all 406 employees receive a calendar invite to a Zoom call. But, rather than being subjected to a droning, faceless announcement, an upper-level leader breaks the news. Rather than reading from a script, they share the change with gratitude and empathy and gently explain that the employees’ managers will be in touch to discuss offboarding and next steps.

The employees then break into smaller, more personal sessions to have a real conversation about the decision with someone they know and trust. The former team members are guided through the offboarding process and given access to outplacement resources to help them prepare for a new role beyond the company. Employees leave knowing that they were treated fairly and with compassion — and share that bittersweet experience in reviews.

Remember, a layoff is painful; it constitutes one of the most frightening and uncertain times in an employee’s life. By connecting the former employee to post-employment resources, a company can provide critical reassurance and support during that transitional time. To be able to ask for help and guidance when you need it most is life-changing. That provision of support demonstrates empathy and ensures that they do so on good terms even when employees leave.

More than ever, businesses need to accept that empathy isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Organizations need people as much as, if not more than, cost-cutting strategies and quick decisions. Take the time to assess your layoff protocols. You may find that the way that you treat people now will define you for years to come.

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