No one likes layoffs.
For employees, losing a job can be a traumatic event. And for a leader, cutting someone from your team comes with its own kind of pain. Still, for any number of reasons, layoffs may be a hard but necessary move. Over the past two years, more and more companies have had to navigate this decision in a newly remote landscape, which can make an already challenging process even more difficult.
Handle it poorly and you're liable not only to upset laid-off employees, but also generate fear and anxiety amongst your remaining workforce. And the result, especially for larger companies, may take a toll on the public perception of your brand. Take Peloton's recent layoff of 2,800 employees: According to screenshots acquired by Business Insider, employees witnessed colleagues disappear from Slack before they received the company's statement on the terminations. Better.com CEO Vishal Garg also made headlines in December after tactlessly cutting 900 employees on Zoom.
These are great examples of how not to handle remote layoffs. Experts say ultimately a remote layoff shouldn't look too different from an in-person termination--but execution is everything. Here's more on how to make remote layoffs as painless as possible for everyone involved.
The stakeholders behind any termination--which typically includes HR, legal, and management--need to establish a thorough, competent plan for layoffs, says employment attorney Steven Peltin, principal at the Seattle law firm Foster Garvey. Establish who will deliver the news to affected employees (typically, an employee's manager, with an HR representative also present), and what to say. You don't want to make an awkward Zoom conversation any more painful than it has to be. Be prepared to give a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination. "I recommend they practice what to say, no differently than they would for any other important business meeting," Peltin adds.
Have a one-on-one conversation
Here's where remote layoffs start to look different from in-person terminations: delivering the news. Instead of a call or email, a face-to-face interaction is essential, says Jennie Yang, vice president of people and culture at the San Francisco-based performance management software company 15Five. In a remote setting, that means scheduling a video call. "Bring compassion into the conversation when it comes to delivery," she says. Thank the employee for their contributions and explain why their termination is necessary. Then share offboarding and severance details.
While these meetings should be no longer than about 10 minutes, it's important that managers aren't the only ones doing the talking, Peltin says. "Give the employee a chance to ask questions during the meeting," he adds. "There may be something that's really bothering them that you might not even think of." Some employees may have questions after the fact, so make sure they have pathways to communication, especially if their email and internal communication platforms are cut off once they're notified of their termination.
Coordinate timing carefully
Layoffs can instill anxiety in remaining employees, especially if leaders don't figure out a tight communication plan before enacting them, Yang says; no one wants to see their colleagues disappear from Slack without explanation. And no employee wants to lose access to their accounts before they learn they've been terminated. "It's a careful sequencing," she says.
Plan to have a virtual all-hands or team meeting with remaining colleagues immediately, following one-on-one conversations with terminated employees to explain the situation and take questions. Either during that conversation or shortly after, remove employees from any technology tied to their employment.
The best thing employers can do for terminated employees is to help them minimize their period of unemployment, and that means offering a healthy severance package, career counseling, and outplacement help, says Shalene Gupta, research associate at Harvard Business School and author of The Power of Trust. When it comes to support, ask employees what they would find more beneficial, whether that's a recommendation on LinkedIn or introductions to connections. And make sure they have a way of contacting anyone within the company they may need to reach after their termination.
Remember that layoffs are traumatic, and even if an employee doesn't ask for help immediately, that doesn't mean they don't need support, Yang says: "Extend your hand proactively the day of the layoff, and then follow up a month later."