Anyone who’s watched the film Up in the Air remembers the iconic scene where George Clooney’s prodigy conducts a layoff over a video call. I laughed when I saw the film a decade ago. Somehow it seems less funny now. Today HR and business leaders are conducting multiple such layoffs each day.
We are experiencing an unprecedented time in our history as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on all of us personally and professionally. More than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance since the country declared a national state of emergency in mid-March. Those who are still employed have seen the world of work change overnight. Each of us is forced to function in new and dramatically different ways professionally and personally.
One of the biggest topics of discussion in HR circles is how to manage layoffs effectively in a virtual world. This discussion brings many moral, ethical and legal questions to the forefront. As an HR leader it’s important to consider we may be laying people off while their spouse or child is in the room. They might even have a young child sitting on their lap.
Curiously, aside from consideration of household dynamics, the only major difference between conducting layoffs in today’s professional environment is which communication tool to use during the conversation. Pre-COVID it would have been inappropriate to lay someone off using video. Today not only is it acceptable, it’s required. There are many more factors to consider when conducting virtual layoffs.
First 30 recommends businesses and HR leaders carefully consider the approach they take to virtual layoffs, particularly at a time when we’re all facing an uncertain future and people are already suffering. We also suggest companies seek legal advice from their in-house counsel or law firm in advance of conducting any layoffs, particularly virtual layoffs where there may be factors previously unconsidered.
Here are the 6 recommendations we offer clients when managing virtual layoffs:
Laying off an employee is a critical decision that has a huge impact on their life. Prepare the discussion points in advance and anticipate potential questions so you have immediate answers. To download First 30‘s top 30 questions to prepare for during a virtual layoff click here. If you don’t know the answer to a question commit to finding the answer and responding quickly. Have your layoff documents prepared and ready to be sent to the employee immediately following the meeting. Send documents both via email as well as through the post if possible. Email will ensure they receive the documentation promptly, however, your employee will also need a hard copy of this documentation – make sure these documents are sent AFTER the layoff discussion occurs so there is no risk they’ll receive documentation before the conversation.
Please don’t pull a “Bird”. Do not conduct a group layoff. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees. How do you think they will feel during a layoff conversation? Not great. No one feels good during a layoff. Now think how they would feel being laid off during a 5-minute Zoom call along with 50 other employees. This is as impersonal as you can get. Do the right thing. These discussions need to happen individually. If your business needs help managing a layoff and having individual meetings with affected employees please reach out to First 30 firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to being one-to-one, video should be enabled for this call. In order for a video call to run smoothly make sure you have the right technology. Imagine how it would feel to be laid off by someone who’s face keeps freezing or when you’re only able to decipher every other word. Many people are investing in ethernet cables (some span the length of their house!) so they’re wired directly into a modem. Face-to-face meetings will also be able to help you establish who is in the room with your employee so you can suggest a private discussion. If other family members are in the room you can recommend they wear a headset so their spouse or children do not overhear what may be a distressing discussion. These days preparing the technology is as important as preparing discussion points.
When layoffs are part of a mass restructure there is no need to make it personal. People are feeling badly enough these days. Sticking to the facts – loss of business, the economic impact of a crisis, loss of clients etc. will ease the blow. Employee performance should have been communicated in ongoing reviews and meetings with their manager. There’s no need to focus on performance (unless it’s positive) during this discussion. Adding a piece of positive feedback and offering a good reference will go a long way in depersonalizing the experience.
It can’t be emphasized enough – be empathetic towards your affected employees. Being laid off at anytime is tough, a layoff during a global health pandemic while social distancing is awful. This layoff will have a huge impact on your employees in ways previously unconsidered. Take the time to actively listen, be respectful, be sensitive and allow your employees to show their emotions, whatever they may be. This is the perfect opportunity to be a true leader and show that you care. During the meeting be present, avoid getting distracted by another call, email or by your phone. Offer your undivided attention to this employee.
Employee mental health is top of mind for leaders globally and needs to be made a priority. People who suffer job loss in the midst of a global pandemic will need as much support as possible. Your employees should be able to ask questions, get answers quickly and feel they have all the information necessary to make smart decisions for themselves and their families. Be accessible. Set up collaboration channels using platforms like Slack, Microsite or email. If you have the ability, continue offering health benefits and employee assistance programs. Offer outplacement services. Outplacement will help your employees recover from job loss and focus on their future career.
The decisions and actions of leaders today will have a massive impact on the future of their business. While the world is rapidly changing and shifting on a daily basis, it may not be clear what the future holds. One thing is certain – how your business responds now and how you treat your people will define your brand for decades. Do the hard work, make the right decisions and support your employees through this extremely difficult time.