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5 mistakes to avoid if you have to lay off employees remotely

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN Business

How you let employees go matters for your company’s reputation.

Consider Better.com’s CEO, who just fired roughly 900 employees in a very brief Zoom call and quickly faced backlash.

No one will ever react positively to hearing they are terminated — whether it’s due to balance sheet problems or their own performance. So it’s incumbent on the person delivering the bad news to be as thoughtful as possible in how they conduct themselves and how they treat the people being let go.

The best practice is always to break the bad news in person.

If that’s not possible, and you must do it via video conference or phone call, you can still put a human touch on it. Here are some mistakes to avoid if you have to let people go remotely (spoiler alert: try to avoid a large group Zoom, or for that matter an impersonal email).

1. Catching employees off guard

Home is normally a person’s safe zone. So shocking employees with the bad news while they’re in the kitchen or within earshot of their kids or spouse is more personally invasive than doing it in an office.

That’s why it’s considered a best practice to give employees in the affected departments — all team members, not just those being laid off — a day or two of advance notice that you’ll be setting up brief, one-on-one virtual meetings to discuss upcoming changes and to suggest they take the meeting someplace quiet.

Not all employees will suspect a layoff is coming, but they will likely anticipate some kind of serious news.

“You’re setting up expectations so the employee is not caught off guard,” said Raymond Lee, CEO of CareerMinds, a virtual outplacement company.

If, however, you’re letting just one person go for performance-related reasons, Lee does not recommend giving any advanced indication of changes.

“If there’s a performance issue, there should already have been several conversations up to that point. So you just need to send a regular catch up meeting invite,” Lee said.

2. Forgetting to practice with the technology

Beyond rehearsing what you’ll say when laying someone off, make sure you’ve mastered the medium through which you’ll be saying it.

That means working on a clear, brief message and practicing it with an HR manager on the video conference tool or conference call system you plan to use.

And make sure you’ve nailed the security features of that technology so no one can Zoom bomb you or otherwise hack your meeting, Lee said.

That means sending out encrypted meeting IDs and locking in sufficient time for the meeting so if it goes a little long, no one can suddenly join in, he advised.

3. Failing to give people privacy

Everybody will react a little differently to being laid off. And they shouldn’t be made to feel on display when they hear the news.

So if you have to lay people off en masse by video conference, turn off everyone’s camera so they can only see you, but not each other, said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research for Gartner, a business advisory firm.

“It’s an incredibly emotional experience. Some people will have no response and others will break down and cry. Letting that happen on camera in front of others is a disrespectful thing to do.”

4. Trying to shut down employees access to the network too soon

Another technological concern: When layoffs are done in person, the IT department often will disconnect the employee’s computer from the company network while you’re meeting with them.

“But if you’re laying someone off online, you can’t cut their connection halfway through,” Kropp said. IT can’t reach in remotely to wipe the person’s laptop in the middle of your conversation, or when employees have turned off their Wi-Fi.

So work out in advance with HR and IT what the logistics will be for shutting down the employee’s access to the network.

You’ll also have to decide whether and how to recover company equipment. “Some companies are sending shipping material to their employees and asking them to ship their IT equipment (e.g., laptops) back to the office,” Kropp said. Others are telling them to keep it if it’s older and the cost of collecting and storing it isn’t worth it.

If the company is still remote and office access is limited, employees will also want to know how they’re supposed to retrieve their personal belongings. Most companies are telling them that an administrative assistant will pack up their things and ship it to them once the office building reopens, he noted.

5. Not being honest and compassionate

The pandemic has made life more difficult for everyone. Now it will become even more so for the people you’re laying off.

Be honest about the company’s situation and the business reasons for the layoff, while also spelling out what sacrifices senior leaders and others are making, Kropp said. “How companies manage the next five months will define their reputation as an employer for the next five years.”

It’s also critical to have an outplacement provider as well as a career coach or counselor from the Employee Assistance Program on standby for when your meeting ends, Lee said.

With the employee’s permission, those advisers can call that person, give them a chance to vent and then start talking next steps, Lee said. “They’re trained to help people move forward.”

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