Remember in 2009, when George Clooney and Anna Kendrick starred in an Oscar-nominated drama about firing people remotely via webcam? We laughed, we cried and then we mostly forgot about it. That was before, though, 2020 ushered in a pandemic that reconfigured everything in our lives — most notably, it reshaped how we interact with people. These days it’s more likely that you’ll be sitting across a pixelated face than a real life one. And obviously, this new reality has bled into our professional lives in more ways than one.
In May, not even a month after the initial lockdown, executives were faced with a choice: Keep their staff employed and better equipped to handle this terrible glitch in the matrix, or unceremoniously fire them like Clooney and Kendrick. They, of course, chose the latter.
In May, Uber laid off 3,500 employees, informing them via an online Zoom call. A couple weeks later, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers (currently they go by WW) laid off thousands of their employees during an “audio only” Zoom call. According to HuffPost, the manager who fired the employees read from a script and had everyone else muted so they couldn’t ask questions. At the end of the call, the employees were shut out of all WW employee websites and their emails were closed down by the weekend.
In her article for The Atlantic, Deborah Copaken ruminated on the visceral feeling of being fired by her employer via Zoom. She noted that “without the normal visual cues and eye contact of in-person communication,” the feeling of being terminated by a pixelated image of her employer “only magnified the surreality of the moment.” “Had the three of us been sitting in a room in person while I was getting fired, instead of floating along as lifeless pixels on a screen, the pain I knew each of us was feeling in that moment — yes, even our head of HR, who spoke touching words about my work and value — might have seemed equally shared,” writes Copaken. “Instead it felt as if I was taking it all on myself.”
Unfortunately, her experience in this newly ushered work-from-home era is likely to be shared by more and more people, according to David Mayer, a professor in the management and organizations area at the Ross School of Business at the University Michigan. “Given that more jobs will undoubtedly be virtual in the future, coupled with the economic challenges many organizations currently face, makes it clear that this issue isn’t going away,” he tells me. We know from research that it’s much easier to do harm from a distance than up close. “It’s easier to give someone an electric shock when they’re in a different room than when we’re touching them,” says Mayer. “It’s easier to harm someone else if it’s done through a third party — an idea we call indirect agency.” In other words, “it likely will be easier to fire people over Zoom, or with an email or text, than in person.”
However, Mayer does stipulate that companies that handle termination in an unjust way not only violate moral principles, but also face reputational costs from future applicants and engagement costs from current employees. “The ‘survivors’ of layoffs are less engaged and loyal to their organization when others are fired in a way that doesn’t uphold their dignity,” Mayer adds.
Still, per Mayer’s previous point, and according to Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, the employee-employer “breakup” via Zoom is going to be easier for some managers. “For those who dread these difficult conversations, the Zoom conversation may make it easier for them to break the news to an employee,” she says. But alternatively, she says, “Some might argue that conducting video meetings from one’s home creates a more relaxed environment that’s conducive to more casual and personal interactions between coworkers.”
From the employee side of things, at least according to a report in Raconteur, a “shared experience by people who have been made redundant over Zoom is they all felt they weren’t given enough time, either as a warning or to process.” Which is to say that unlike many of the current Zoom layoffs, both Mayer and Augustine agree that the least a manager can do in these situations is to dignify their employee enough to have a one-on-one Zoom conversation.
This is certainly advice that employers should be listening to, says Mayer. From an employer’s point-of-view, he says that treating your soon to be ex-employee with anything but grace and respect during such a trying time is “faulty logic.” “This is an issue where doing the right thing and doing what’s best for the organization are in alignment,” says Mayer. “Organizations that show care for their terminated employees not only help them feel seen, but it also serves as a signal for future and current employees that the organization cares about its people.”
Zoom firings or not, however, Augustine says that ideally, if the person is being terminated, the news should never come as a surprise. “A good manager should be regularly communicating with their staff about their expectations and whether the employee is meeting them,” she says. “If a conversation is scheduled to discuss an employee’s performance, especially if the manager has already placed the employee on a performance-improvement plan, then the employee shouldn’t be blindsided.”
In addition, Augustine says that logistically, coordination with HR and tech is paramount in the situation of a Zoom layoff. “For example, depending on company policy and the nature of the layoff or termination, an HR representative might be invited to attend the meeting,” she says. “You can’t necessarily plan around every potential tech snag, but you can test the platform in advance and always have a backup plan in place — for example, ‘My internet has been spotty today. If I lose you at any point, try to rejoin the meeting. If that doesn’t work, text me and I’ll call you directly to continue our conversation.’”
Mayer also stresses the importance of minimizing the potential technical glitches that may arise in this particular situation. “My goodness, it’s like someone breaking up with you on the phone, and when they’re partway through the phone call, their phone stops working,” he says. “Insult to injury.” This, he tells me, is, “Yet another reason to avoid Zoom firing altogether.”
Amen to that.