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.