You Can Fire People Humanely Over Video Call

Image description: Person holding box full of desk supplies.

In the 2009 movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job it is to fly to workplaces and fire people. His nemesis is a woman who wants to fire people via video meetings in order to save money. By the end of the film, you’re left with the impression that the only humane termination is one done in person.

The recent Huffpost layoffs seem to bolster that idea. Staff were reportedly told at ten am that if they didn’t get an email by 1pm, their job was safe. This means some folks waited three hours to find out if they had a job or not. Worse, they couldn’t be together when it happened since the team was working from home due to the pandemic. The people manager in me wonders why Buzzfeed didn’t just send out those infamous emails all at once. Getting fired by email isn’t great, but waiting three hours to get fired by email is even worse.

The thing Up in the Air and Buzzfeed both seem to miss is that you can, in fact, conduct humane terminations via video call. Just as you can conduct terrible layoffs in person. The mode of work–in person vs remote–doesn’t change that fact. Employees don’t lose their humanity just because leadership can’t see them.

I have a lot more to say on this topic. I’m in the middle of writing the “how to fire humanely over zoom” chapter in my upcoming business book right now. But here are two things to keep in mind if you need to lay off a remote worker in the next couple of weeks.

This is Not the Time to Hide Behind Business Speak

Human Resources and Legal Departments will want to vet whatever communications go out to your employees. That’s only natural. But make sure that your employees–both the ones leaving and the ones staying–get to see a human take responsibility for the layoffs. And make sure you show them your very human regret.

The Employees that Stay Are Watching You Too

Few people expect to stay a a company for life. But they’ll still hold it against you if you toss people aside like empty printer cartridges. They may put their heads down and continue working, but they’ll remember how you treated their colleagues. And how you act once the dust settles.

Think of it this way: you would never attend a funeral and expect the deceased’s family to go to a party right after to celebrate that they are still alive. And you would never tell the survivors that you’re happy they’re alive because they’re brilliant at what they do. The same holds true for layoff survivors. This is a case where doing the right thing is good from both a people and results perspective. Show a little respect for your employees’ feelings and they will more quickly refocus on the job at hand.

There is no magic formula that will make people happy to be fired. You’re separating people from their livelihood, after all. But you can–and should–take a human-centered approach when you do it. Doing so will both help your employees process the trauma of the terminations, and benefit your business results.

What’s That Douglas Up To?

Writing, writing, writing. I was having a tough time finding the opening for my business book’s chapter ‘How to Fire Humanely Over Zoom,’ until I had a conversation with someone about how not to lay people off a week or so ago. And just like that, the first few pages unrolled in my head and I had to type furiously to get it all down.

As a result, I don’t have a lot of other writing to share with you. I have no fewer than three accepted pieces waiting to be published in other outlets, but this is from work I wrote weeks ago. Two of them are literary and one is comedy. (When I’m blocked in one type of writing I usually switch to another so my subconscious can work through the issue on its own time.)

I’m Teaching My Kids How to Cook

This has resulted in some truly spectacular dishes. Some of them are spectacularly good while others…are learning experiences. So far we’ve learned not to use as much pickling salt as you would table salt, and that tortilla soup does not need to be thickened with tomato paste because soup is supposed to be runny. I think we’ve avoided having to learn that you shouldn’t put marshmallows in butter tarts even if you like both of those things separately. Whew!

That’s it from Douglas HQ. I hope you can find little pockets of joy this week. I’ll see you next time.

Diverging Paths

Last week my daughter’s best friend moved to another country, and I spent time helping her deal with that separation. I’m no grief counselor, but a wise person once told me that whatever you feel while grieving is the right way to feel. It’s a sentiment that’s helped me during my own grief, and I think it’s helping my girl through hers.

There have been a lot of diverging paths this week. Today (Thursday) is the last day of school for both of my children. BC managed to bring students back into the classroom for a month without creating COVID outbreaks. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. I’m happy about that, and frankly, happy to stop homeschooling my kids. Here’s hoping the public school system takes the next two months to figure out how to streamline online learning, creating a system that does not assume there’s a parent available full-time to educate the children.

Everyone did the best they could in an unexpected situation. But now it’s time to iterate and do better.

Dropping Things Left and Right

This week I also left the writing group I’ve been with for about a year. They’re a lovely group of people, but not the right fit. Back in my twenties I would have agonized over the decision to leave my writing group. I would have second-guessed myself, wondering if the problem was me, if I was just being too picky or demanding.

Gosh I’m glad I’m not in my twenties any more. All that second guessing is exhausting. Now that I’m older, I know that that some relationships end. And I chose to leave before I could start resenting the group for not being the right fit. I have no doubt they’ll do just fine without me, as they all knew each other before I showed up.

I Fed the Beast

Lastly, I finally took the writing path I’ve been avoiding for the last few months. I spent some time trying to write about my grandmother. After a great deal of effort I have exactly one sentence. That wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought I would vomit words onto the page, have myself a good cry, and save the document to edit later. Instead I ran headfirst into a brick wall and bounced off of it.

Apparently that was enough blood to feed the creativity beast, because I wrote a third of a management article this afternoon, and I only stopped in order to write this post. Did I mention that my creativity can be a jerk sometimes? This was another one of those times. My plan is to post the article on Medium when it’s done. I’ll add a link here when I do.

This isn’t me giving up on writing about my grandmother. I can feel the seedling of that story sort of working its way through my subconscious. When it’s ready, I’ll write it. In the meantime my management writing mojo is back, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

I Am Not Okay

Photo by Dương Nhân from Pexels

My son almost died when he was a baby. And I thought I was okay once we checked out of the hospital. It wasn’t until three months later, when some of the trauma from that experience lifted, that I realized I hadn’t been okay at all.

Denial. Not Just a River in Egypt

I went through that same pattern for about a year. The cloud of trauma would rise up a bit, and I would look back at the previous months and think ‘Why did I think I was okay then? Boy I’m glad I’m okay now,’ until I noticed the number of times I said that. At that point I started worrying that I wasn’t ever going to be okay again.

Panic drove me to therapy. I had small children to care for, a demanding job, and the fallout from the last recession to deal with. I didn’t have time for PTSD or whatever it was that was wrong with me. The plan was to go, talk to someone to take the edge off of things, and then carry on with my life.

That isn’t how therapy works. I know that, now. But at least I went. Up until that point my only real coping mechanisms were denial and knitting, and knitting can only get you so far.

You Can’t Heal if You Don’t Admit You’re Injured

The thing is, you can’t heal if you refuse to admit you’re injured. It’s hard to admit when I’m hurting. I am the super hero of my own life. But sometimes life punches you right in the jaw and you need to admit it hurts.

My company is going through a reorganization. A lot of good people are leaving, and it hurts.

Discomfort Isn’t An Emergency

Let’s talk about running. I promise it’s relevant. Running long distances hurts. Something inevitably chafes, my muscles scream, and sweat gets into my eyes.

Long distances also scrub away the things that don’t really matter–if I can go the distance, I gain a kind of clarity I can’t find any other way. But to get there, I spend the last few miles talking myself through the tired and the pain. I’m not talking about actual injury here. I’m talking about surface discomfort–blisters, fatigue, that sort of thing.

You know what? Discomfort isn’t an emergency. Strictly speaking, if I’m running at the edge of my capability, I’m not okay. But the shortest distance back to okay is to wade right through. Running is the least traumatic way I know of to learn to cope with pain.

Almost

There’s only one word in the sentence ‘my son almost died as a baby,’ that I am grateful for. That word is ‘almost.’ The experience gave me a set of coping skills I wish I could have learned by running instead. And that’s basically where I’m at right now with this reorganization. Coping. My colleagues will find great jobs. At some point this will stop hurting so much. I will put one foot after the other and I will keep going until I push on through.