Remote layoffs a minefield for employers who fail to think it through

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Delivering bad news over a computer screen adds an extra layer of complexity to an already stressful situation

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Howard Levitt and Stephen Gillman

The concept of a virtual workplace is not new. Beginning in the 1980s, there have been recurrent campaigns exhorting the business community to implement different kinds of work-from-home arrangements. Over that period, those in the know continually prophesied that one day soon, we would all be telecommuting to our virtual workplaces. But the transition to a fully remote workplace was slow to catch on.

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That quiet resistance, as we all know, ended with the onset of the pandemic, when remote work became a health and legal necessity. With the epidemic now behind us, it is evident the virtual workplace has staying power. But even though remote work is becoming the “new normal,” we are still, in many respects, in uncharted waters.

The way layoffs and terminations are handled is one such area. The unique challenges in implementing a mass termination of a virtual workplace were recently on display when Bell Canada notified 400 remote union workers that their positions were being eliminated.

Bell decided it was best to arrange a series of brief virtual group meetings, during which human resources department officials simply read out scripted notices, informing the affected employees that they were “surplus” and their employment was no more.  The fact that they thought they could even get away with this shows to what extent remote workers are viewed as disassociated from the regular workforce.

To the surprise of no one, the union immediately took issue with the way the dismissals were conducted, and a highly publicized kvetching session drew national media attention.

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There was nothing illegal about how Bell conducted its mass furloughs. The impersonal nature of the decision to virtually terminate employees should not have entirely shocked the conscience of a remote workforce that has preferred the solitude of their living rooms to traditional brick-and-mortar office settings.

But leaving legal realities and moral outrage aside, Bell made several avoidable missteps.

To be fair, employee dismissals are inherently nasty business. The executives, managers and human resource professionals that we deal with daily all profess that the worst aspect of their jobs is letting employees go.

No matter the context, the termination process results in significant stress and negative emotion for all involved. While employee dismissals are tough enough, delivering the bad news over a computer screen adds another uncomfortable layer of complexity.

Here are some strategies that ought to be top of mind:

Try to be personal. Whatever their location, these are your employees and they have devoted a portion of their lives to you. Be kind, considerate and conduct terminations individually, not in a group. Getting let go can have a major impact on someone’s life and psychological equanimity — be mindful of that in everything you do.

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You are in the boardroom, not the living room. It is critical to remember that this is a serious transaction. Dress appropriately, ensure you have an opaque background, and stare directly into the camera. You do not want the former employee’s last impression to be of you dressed overly casually, with a beach-themed backdrop.

The employee is not in the boardroom. Depending on where the camera is pointing, an employee may not be able to tell who is in the room during the layoff call. It is advisable to declare upfront who is in attendance, or connected to the call virtually.

 

Remove all access. While the employee is not in the physical workplace, they likely have access to the employer’s virtual systems. Plan to disconnect the employee from their work email and other internal networks immediately following the meeting. Failing to do so could well open the door to chaos.

 

Follow-up is critical. Once the meeting has concluded, have the termination letter sent to the employee’s personal email account, and ensure that all other routine follow-up procedures are adhered to, albeit through virtual means.

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For employees who wish to safeguard against being dismissed, the most powerful advice we can offer is to show up to the physical workplace. We appreciate there are costs and effort involved in doing so, but if your boss shows up to the office daily, you should, too.

Howard Levitt is a senior partner of Levitt Sheikh LLP, employment and labour lawyers. He practices employment law in eight provinces and all territories. He is the author of six books, including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Stephen Gillman is a partner at Levitt Sheikh. 

 

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