In pre-COVID times, the idea of using remote communications to inform staff they were being let go would have been akin to dumping your partner via text – highly impersonal, emotionally distressing, and usually suggestive of a lack of courage to ‘face the music’. However, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, breaking the news about lay-offs in a virtual setting – such as through video conferencing software like Zoom or Skype – has become an unfortunate and often unavoidable reality.
When ride-hailing firm Uber had to lay off 3500 employees in May, outgoing staff members received the news via a Zoom video call; a similar scenario played out for employees of the company formerly known as Weight Watchers (now WW), whose lay-offs were announced in a group video conference.
Despite remote lay-offs being the ‘new normal’ in our post-COVID environment, it’s crucial that employers approach the situation with great care and sensitivity, so as to minimise the emotional impact on their outgoing employees.
While ensuring staff members feel supported and respected when being laid off is even more challenging when communications are limited to virtual meetings, there are a number of factors employers can consider to make remote job losses less distressing.
Conduct a one-on-one meeting where possible
Just because you’re having to lay off staff using remote methods, it doesn’t mean your usual standards of conducting business have to be abandoned. As in a non-remote setting, news of a job loss is generally best delivered in a one-to-one scenario to ensure you can give the recipient the time and attention they deserve.
It should be noted that the impact of COVID has resulted in some situations where individual lay-off meetings aren’t feasible. For example, if word has already started to spread through an organisation that job losses are imminent, it’s probably going to be better for you to deliver the news as quickly as possible to everyone involved rather than allowing rumours to tear through your staff like wildfire.
The rule of thumb here is to aim to replicate the in-person experience as closely as possible. So, if feasible, arrange a one-on-one video conference that allows you to manage the responses and emotions of your retrenched employees in a more personal setting than a group meeting.
Allow enough time for a full discussion
While the meeting may be uncomfortable and difficult for both you and the recipient, trying to rush through proceedings or having to make a quick exit because you run out of time is only going to make matters worse. Be sure to allocate sufficient time to explain the decision, outline next steps, and answer any questions your former employees may have.
At the same time, be respectful of the wishes of retrenched staff members – some may prefer to get off the call as soon as possible and take their own time to process the news. The important thing is to ensure they know they can reach out again when they feel ready to continue the discussion.
Remind employees why you’re having to let them go remotely
Even if it seems obvious why layoffs are being conducted remotely, highlighting the fact that this would not be your preferred method of letting staff go can help to remind them that these are unusually challenging times to say the least. Similarly, reiterating the fact that the decision was nothing personal but rather the fall-out from the global pandemic can improve the way it’s received.
By making a point of explaining the reason for having to conduct the meeting remotely and acknowledging the impact this may have can help retrenched employees to feel seen and understood, as well as providing reassurance that any complex emotions they experience are perfectly valid.
Be prepared to deal with a range of emotions
The way people respond to bad news can vary greatly – and when the delivery of that news is undertaken in the impersonal setting of a remote meeting, emotional responses may be heightened. It’s important to allow your outgoing employees to express their emotions and vocalise how they’re feeling.
Initial emotional responses may include shock, sadness, or anger. Try to gauge how the employee in question is feeling and give them space to express themselves, lending a listening ear and a supportive demeanour. The truth of the matter is, you may also feel distressed or upset about the situation, but it’s important to remain calm and reassuring – the last thing your employee wants is to feel they have to manage your emotions on top of their own.
Have a clear follow-up plan in place
Being laid off remotely will be a distressing experience at the time, but the hours and days that follow may bring up further complex emotions for your outgoing employees, as they grapple with the reality of having lost their job without the human support of being in the office. If the employees in question are also in a lockdown environment, this sense of isolation and abandonment is likely to be increased.
For this reason, it’s crucial you have a solid follow-up plan in place so former employees know what to expect after they’ve received the news. This may include scheduling a second virtual meeting to answer any further questions, as well as having a clear point of contact for enquiries and concerns.
In addition, your follow-up may involve offering an online outplacement program to provide former employees with the support and guidance they need in their career transition. If you’d like to find out more about Career365’s online outplacement programs, visit www.career365.com.au
In the next article, I’ll be exploring the emotional impact of being laid off remotely, common types of emotional responses from outgoing staff members, and how employers can support their former employees during the transition period.