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Why some companies are failing the ‘humanity’ test with virtual layoffs

The norms of laying off remote workers through virtual communication platforms like Zoom are still a work in progress, according to experts, but there are several ways to improve a process some say can be “inhuman.”

Experts say virtual layoffs are part of remote work, but the process remains inelegant

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Cross Country Checkup1:51:35FULL EPISODE: Have you ever experienced a sudden layoff?

Terry Compton's 24 years at a Toronto university's English as a second language program ended with a four-minute Zoom call in March 2020.

She said her director's camera was off and a "second-in-command" informed her and her colleagues that they had been permanently laid off because of the impact of COVID-19.

"It felt inhuman and cruel," she told Cross Country Checkup.

Compton said the chat function in the meeting was off and no followup questions were allowed.

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"To add insult to injury, the next day we all received emails inviting us to the yearly instructor appreciation party. I guess the other departments hadn't been told that we were leaving."

Vass Bednar, the executive director of McMaster University's master of public policy in digital society program, said the etiquette of virtual layoffs is evolving. "We don't have norms yet," Bednar said. "And this is a good opportunity to set them."

While some employers are calling for employees to return to offices following the pandemic, recent research from the U.S. nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research indicates job postings for new employees in Canada mentioning one or more days of remote work increased "by a factor of five or more" between 2019 and 2023.

Most Canadians who have tried remote work want it to remain an option. A survey published last year by the Environics Institute for Survey Research noted the proportion of respondents who preferred working from home to the office increased between 2020 and 2022.

But career coach Sarah Vermunt said it's important to keep in mind "if you're working fully remotely — if you're getting hired via Zoom — you're going to get fired via Zoom."

Offboard like you onboard

Stories of mass virtual layoffs like Compton's became notorious during the pandemic, especially in 2021 after Better.com CEO Vishal Garg laid off hundreds of employees in a Zoom webinar.

Vermunt said Garg erred by delivering the news in a way that focused on how it impacted him rather than its impact on employees.

Woman in white shirt looks off camera in front of blurred, bright area.

Another example in 2022 saw reports of online used car retailer Carvana disconnecting employees from work apps like Slack before sending out an invitation to a Zoom meeting where workers got confirmation if their job had been cut.

"I think the reason why people are having such a hard time with it right now and there's been so many reports of negative incidents is because people, for the most part, don't know how to do it with kindness and humanity yet," Vermunt said of online layoffs.

"It's still a bit clunky."

Bednar believes companies should take seriously how they terminate people in a virtual world.

"If you're hired online, you're not hired in a way that's highly automated with a prerecorded video or, you know, someone is interviewing you and they have their camera off." That same level of basic decency should be applied to layoffs, she added.

Reflecting on her experience, Compton agrees.

"I gave them almost two hours of my time to get the job. So I don't think it's asking too much to, say, give us each even 10 minutes."

Bednar wonders if a bad reputation for how virtual layoffs are handled could impact a firm's recruitment efforts.

Woman in glasses and blazer stands in front of bookshelf.

"I almost wonder if people might start asking in their initial job interviews, 'In the event of a mass layoff … how is this firm prepared to proceed? What should I expect?'"

She also thinks there needs to be more procedures and planning when firing remote workers, such as clear rules for handling company devices through which the layoff news may be communicated.

"I think firms should be looking at those tools as kind of essentially a write off. And that's part of why you have to think about offboarding ahead of time, because you also want [a plan] from [a] cybersecurity and a privacy perspective if someone's keeping the hardware."

How to communicate the news

Vermunt understands the underlying logic of why companies might risk bad press to maintain a barrier when mass layoffs transpire.

"It's a way to try to control the situation … let's say you're laying off a group of ten or 20 or 50 or 100 people, you don't necessarily want everybody's mics on."

There are ways to stress an interpersonal connection when communicating remotely. Certain things, like signal delays making people seem less friendly are difficult to control, but many people fall into the trap of looking at themselves while speaking on a Zoom call.

Vermunt tells clients to make sure to look into the camera on their computer to establish eye contact.

WATCH | What it's like to be fired over Zoom:

What it’s like to be fired over Zoom

3 years ago

Duration 1:34

Joanne Gallop was let go from Canopy Growth through a mass layoff of 200 employees — via the video chat platform Zoom. Illustrations by Chelle Lorenzen.

In a mass layoff scenario, she said one-on-one follow ups are an important gesture. That's something Compton echoes reflecting on her experience.

"I think just a little one-on-one humanity could have made the whole thing a lot better."

Bednar isn't sure digital communication will ever rival the physical version for cues and body language but does think technology is changing layoff scenarios on a number of fronts.

In the recent past, she said business leaders were more insulated, but they may need to be more mindful of how to conduct layoffs because "suddenly your CEO is being tagged on Twitter or chirped on LinkedIn."

Even if they're not delivering the news themselves, being on a Zoom call during a layoff potentially puts executives in the midst of the real-time response more than in the past when word was handled by middle management.

Bednar also said to keep in mind there's always new tech emerging in virtual communication, such as virtual reality headsets.

"Maybe we have a kind of a new augmented reality that's going to smooth or soften these interactions by getting closer to feeling like we're having a more kind of authentic human connection."

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