A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 6, 2020

How Working From Home Is Now Leading To 'Remote Termination'

What might be called economic distancing.  JL

Kathryn Dill reports in the Wall Street Journal:

People are finding out en masse that they are losing their jobs on conference calls, Zoom and email. 60% of the U.S. workforce is working from home. Layoffs and furloughs have become a reality at a time when it is impossible for in-person interaction with managers. Some workers call the practice harsh, while others concede companies have little choice but to let people go by remote. When possible, employees should be notified individually. If it has to happen in a group, turn off cameras and microphones and hide the list of people on the call. Managers should make sure (people) understand a difficult conversation is coming so they can find a space that is semiprivate.
The one-two punch of social distancing and economic devastation is giving workers something new to worry about: remote termination.
From tech employees in Silicon Valley to marketing and sales professionals in the Midwest, people are finding out en masse that they are losing their jobs on conference calls, Zoom video chats and via email. Some workers are calling out the practice as particularly harsh, while others concede that many companies have little choice but to let people go by remote.
Ruthie Townsend didn’t think anything was amiss last week when she logged into her company’s standing staff meeting on Zoom, even though management at Pana, the business-travel-software startup where she worked, had warned the company might face serious challenges. But at the top of the videoconference call, employees at the Denver-based company were told they would soon receive either an email indicating that they were still employed, or an invite to another Zoom call at which severance details would be explained.
Ms. Townsend, a 25-year-old sales rep, began furiously refreshing her email until the calendar invite appeared in her inbox. “I was already panicking,” she says. “I forgot if this is the one where I get laid off or I’m keeping my job.”
When she logged into the next Zoom call and realized she was being laid off, she quickly muted herself and shut off her computer’s video camera; she says she was comforted to hear Pana was dedicating resources to help people find other work.
Sam Felsenthal, Pana’s chief operating officer, says that delivering the news over Zoom was “the last thing anybody wanted to do,” but management had been advised to limit the time between workers hearing a layoff was coming and learning they were part of the group being laid off.
TripActions Inc., a corporate-travel startup based in Palo Alto, Calif. grabbed headlines last week as one of the first companies to enact a significant layoff—nearly 300 employees, or 25% of its staff—over Zoom. Ariel Cohen, the co-founder and chief executive, says there is no good way to let people go. He worried that talking to employees individually would create a situation where the sad news spread quickly and created anxiety before management could reach everyone.
“Whether we do it over Zoom or face-to-face, the actual act is horrible,” Mr. Cohen says of the layoff.
The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that 60% of the U.S. workforce is currently working from home. As many businesses enter the fourth week of a shutdown aimed at stopping the spread of new coronavirus, significant layoffs and furloughs have become a reality at a time when it is impossible for many people to have an in-person interaction with their manager.
When possible, employees should be notified of their termination individually, says Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner, a research firm. But if it has to happen in a group video or conference call, Mr. Kropp recommends turning off cameras and microphones of those dialing in and hiding the list of people on the call.
Tracy Cote, chief people officer at human-resources-technology firm Zenefits, says if bad news has to be delivered to somebody working from home, managers should make sure that person understands a difficult conversation is coming so they can find a space that is at least semiprivate.
“You don’t want to tell them they’re laid off in the middle of the kitchen with the family around,” she says.
Brad Barron had been working from his Los Angeles home for about a week when a scheduled phone call with the CEO of Beach House Group, his employer’s parent company, appeared on his calendar for the following morning. Mr. Barron, 31, says he wasn’t surprised to learn in the meeting that his role as head of marketing at Moon Oral Care had been eliminated. But he says he wishes it had been done in a FaceTime call to help him read the situation fully.
“It’s really hard to have that conversation without looking someone in the eyes,” says Mr. Barron. The upside of being laid off while working from home: He says he was spared the sudden shock of no longer going into the office. “I always imagine one of the worst parts is having to pack up your stuff in front of a bunch of people.”
Beach House Group didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Though experts recommend allowing employees to decide whether they want to be visible during a remote termination, managers who communicate the message through a videoconference should be on camera, so that employees can pick up on subtle cues and recognize genuine emotion, says Amy Tilles, principal in the career business at Mercer LLC, a consulting firm.
Jesse Barnes, a 25-year-old former sales rep, found out he was one of 90 employees being laid off at Foodsby, an office-lunch-delivery startup, in a personal call from the Minneapolis-based company’s chief revenue officer in late March. The following morning, the CEO, Ben Cattoor, announced the news to the company’s 150 employees on a RingCentral video call.
“As a leader, this is a situation you hope you never have to encounter,” Mr. Cattoor was quoted as saying later, in a company statement. “It’s never easy letting people go, but it is especially difficult when it is of this magnitude and in response to something that’s entirely out of everyone’s control.”
On the video call, “he was tearing up and having a visibly hard time with this decision,” says Mr. Barnes. “That really hit me.”


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