The exact action plan compassionate managers should follow if they need to lay someone off remotely
- With many nonessential businesses shuttering and others looking to cut costs amid COVID-19, employees are losing their jobs; because of social distancing, employees are being handed their virtual pink slip via phone or video chat.
- Business Insider spoke to three human resource experts, who outlined best practices for terminating an employee remotely.
- They said being prepared and treating the person with respect is key.
- Consider state rules regarding final paychecks and figure out if or how equipment will be returned.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
As many nonessential businesses shutter and others seek to cut costs amid COVID-19, employees are losing their jobs. Because of social distancing, staffers who are working from home are being handed their virtual pink slip via phone or video chat.
Having to lay off an employee is difficult under any circumstances, but delivering the news to a member of the team who is working remotely presents additional challenges and requires plenty of forethought.
Business Insider spoke to three human resource experts, who outlined best practices for terminating an employee remotely. From knowing state rules regarding final paychecks to determining if or how equipment will be returned, there are many aspects to consider before scheduling that final call or video chat.
Regardless of whether you're letting a worker go in person or remotely, Amanda Haddaway, managing director of HR consulting company HR Answerbox, said that the key to a successful termination is being prepared and treating the employee with respect and dignity.
"These situations aren't easy on anyone, so the more you can prepare, the better," she said.
With that in mind, consider this action plan to make the process of laying off a remote employee as smooth as possible for all parties.
Do your homework
Prior to scheduling a meeting, you'll need to be well prepared so you're adhering to the law and ready to answer your employee's questions professionally.
"You have to know what the state or national rules are for anywhere your people are located," said Liz Kislik, management consultant executive coach and founder of Liz Kislik Associates. "It is not enough to know what is the right thing in your headquarters."
For example, legal requirements surrounding an employee's final paycheck vary by state.
"Some states mandate final pay to be delivered on the last day of employment," said Adam Calli, principal consultant at human resources firm ARC Human Capital, LLC. "Will you send that check by courier? Will you send it overnight and make tomorrow their last day? Don't be fumbling through these details."
Paycor.com provides a table that shows when a final paycheck must be delivered depending on the state.
"Depending on how many people you're turning loose at once, there may actually be a notice period," noted Kislik, referring to the The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which helps ensure advance notice in cases of mass layoffs. "The requirements for severance and the requirements for releases or specific separation agreements may be different by state or locality."
Employers can also check the DOL's website to find each state's labor office for additional guidance.
If the employee will be offered a severance package, you'll need to work out all the details ahead of time.
"Make sure the decisions have been made, your employment attorney has completed their review of the severance agreement and process by which individuals were selected to be let go, and you're clear on the details regarding pay, benefits, out-placement assistance, and effective dates," said Calli.
You should also decide if you want a witness to participate, if possible.
"I recommend having an HR professional lead the conversation," said Haddaway. "HR people are trained to do this type of work and know the answers to the questions that will be asked."
Plan out the logistics
Laying off an employee when you're in the office together typically negates the need for a discussion regarding returning equipment or handing over keys to the office. But when an employee is working remotely, you'll need to determine what's best for your business and address this.
If you have to tell people to send back equipment, you'll need to provide the company's UPS or FedEx number so they can ship the items to the appropriate person at the business' expense, said Calli. Or, Kislik noted, it may be cheaper to allow them to keep the equipment or include it as part of their severance package. Either way, make these decisions ahead of time.
Similarly, there may be company files that employees need to send back, delete, or destroy, so you'll need to consider this as well.
"Oftentimes companies have agreements that staff have signed which govern return or destruction of company property or information," said Calli. "Providing them a copy of those agreements in [a] follow-up to the layoff/termination announcement can remind them of their obligations. You also might want to make severance payments contingent upon receipt of company equipment. In this way, the employee is motivated to return the gear promptly and in good working order."
You may also need certain records or reports about where they're leaving various customer transactions or discussions with suppliers, Kislik noted. If you know you're going to need to let the employee go next week, try to secure that kind of information from them, she added, as this will help ensure a smoother transition for the company as well as its customers and suppliers.
Decide how you'll deliver the message
Once you've done your prep work, decide how you'll deliver the message. While an in-person meeting is usually thought to be the best way to terminate an employee, that's not entirely possible when your team's self-isolating and working from home.
"If you can't be in person, the next best thing is video, followed by phone," said Kislik. "There is no good reason to use email or any other channel (like) text or Slack. The only reason you would use not video or phone is if you had actually tried multiple times to reach someone and they were not responding and you had to make the announcement. But under no other circumstances should it be done this way."
Because looking someone in the eye and telling them they've lost their job is never easy, Calli noted that it might be tempting to hide behind the phone. As unpleasant as it may be, remember that you owe them the human courtesy of looking them in the face while delivering the message.
That said, consider how comfortable you are with the technology and how reliable that technology is.
"While doing this via a video platform is more personal and more considerate, if your microphone is cutting out, if the picture is dropping in and out, and if you get disconnected, then you're probably better off just making a call than letting technical glitches disrupt the message," Calli said.
Schedule a meeting
After you've determined how you'll let them know, give the employee advance notice that you want to discuss something important.
"Letting them know you want to talk with them about something important ahead of time hopefully ensures other family members aren't around at the moment," said Calli. "Put yourself in their shoes: Getting fired/laid off is never easy, but imagine if their child, spouse, or roommate were in the room as it was happening?"
How do you do this effectively? Calli suggested sending them an email early in the day notifying them that you'd like to speak with them that afternoon.
"You don't want to tell them days in advance, because they will spend days wondering what it is," he said. "And if you still have business to conduct with them over those days, then they'll feel like they are in limbo each time they interact with you about 'normal stuff.'"
Calli suggested the following as an example email:
I'd appreciate it if you can block some uninterrupted time on your calendar this afternoon. I've got some important items to go over with you and I want to be sure we can discuss them with your full attention. Let me know when is good for you between [time] and [time] today.
"I think the phrases 'uninterrupted time' and 'discuss with your full attention' let the employee know it'll be something important for them to focus on, but doesn't send them into a panic," Calli noted.
Consider your surroundings
Once the preparation is completed and the day comes, ensure that you have appropriate privacy at your home as well.
"Right now we're all laughing at stories about kids, cats, dogs, and spouses hilariously interrupting video conferences, but this is not the time for Fido to be jumping on your lap and licking your face," said Calli. "Choose your environment and attire appropriately. This is an important and highly impactful message. Typically, you'd be in your normal office space wearing your normal work attire and wouldn't really need to think about this. But I don't think you sitting on your back deck showing me your lakefront view and wearing your Mickey Mouse t-shirt is going to make this any easier."
Begin the conversation by prepping them for the news and being direct
If you've opted to have an HR rep on the call, they may decide to take the lead. Or, they may be there in a support capacity, ready to answer questions after you deliver the news. If you're starting the conversation, Kislik outlined how to steer it and keep it concise.
"Start with, 'I'm sorry to have to give you bad news' or, 'I have a very difficult announcement to make,'" she said. "So it is one sentence of 'Pay attention, this is bad.' The reason for that is it calls people to focus in the first place, and it gives them the half second of calling their resources to get ready, so that the next line is still shocking but they actually know it's happening. It's a signal that says, 'Batten down the hatches.' A regular line I like to use is, 'Please put your seat belts on, this is going to be uncomfortable.'"
After that signal line, follow it up with, "Because of the current circumstances …" and then insert a phrase that defines the situation. For example, "We've lost 80% of our customers," or, "Our business is considered nonessential and we're unable to continue …" Follow this with the action statement, "… so we're forced to lay you off."
Then, outline what they can expect to receive from the company either later that afternoon or in the coming days. This will typically include a separation agreement, a paycheck for the current period unless the employee has direct deposit, and information about benefits and COBRA.
The employer should express their regrets once more and thank the employee for their contributions.
"They should not go on about how much 'this pains me.' That's much too burdensome to put on your workforce," added Kislik.
Be ready for the emotions and questions
Being terminated is life-changing and can cause someone to panic about their future, and rightly so, said Haddaway. With that in mind, try to be empathetic and professional.
"You really can't predict how someone will respond, and I've seen a range of emotions over the years," she said. "People may get angry, they may yell, they may cry, or they may become very sullen. Your role is to maintain your composure, even when it's really difficult."
You should also be prepared to answer questions the employee may have about their last paycheck, benefits, returning equipment, and if you're willing to serve as a reference going forward.
"It's nice to also provide information on how the person should file for unemployment," said Haddaway.
While you can't let the conversation drag on, allow an appropriate amount of time to say what needs to be said, and to listen to them in response, said Calli. He advised employers to remember that this is still the age of social media prevalence and messages, particularly negative ones, easily go viral.
"You don't want to give the person reason to go onto Glassdoor or other similar platforms and talk about how mistreated they were," he added.
After your discussion, notify relevant teams and reassure employees still on staff
Once the conversation ends, be sure to notify human resources if a representative was not on the call or video with you. Contact IT for login changes and removing access to data, as well as payroll, security, or other operational managers as appropriate.
Losing a team member can often cause feelings of fear and unease among other employees. Rather than let those emotions fester, address the layoff with the go-forward team as soon as possible.
Kislik advised having an email ready to send immediately following the layoff. For example:
As of today, [employee's name] is no longer with the company. We will be meeting with you individually or in your work groups to discuss how [employee's name]'s duties will be divided and how we can go forward. We wish [employee's name] the best in all [his/her/their] future endeavors.
Kislik added that employers may want to include the reason for the layoff, such as "We're doing this to try to keep the business alive," or "To be able to continue to serve customers under the new circumstances." Additionally, if a team or more than one layoff occurred, the email to remaining employees should note, "We hope you will stick with us. We realize it is a very hard time."
It's important to rally the now-smaller team and galvanize them so they feel "a combination of lucky and committed," Kislik added.
Even when a termination doesn't take place in person, it's still personal, Calli noted. Laying off an employee is never easy, but being prepared and compassionate can help both parties move forward productively.
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