Firing in the Digital Age

The following is an article published by Fast Company on November 19, 2015, and features comments from OperationsInc CEO David Lewis. To view the original article, please click here.




by Lydia Dishman

When a company decides to pivot, staff layoffs are often inevitable.

4cONiOi4So it is with Gawker Media, which laid off at least seven people as the New York Times reported it taking a turn to focus on political coverage. Founder Nick Denton communicated this to staff in a memo that touted the 2016 elections as fodder for “sensation and satire,” and that the new editorial director will “redirect the Gawkerteam to hump the campaign.”

This comes after a recent controversy over the publication of a tabloid-like story about a male escort and a media executive that was taken down in response to a firestorm from readers who believed it crossed the privacy line. Two editors resigned in protest, and the rest of the staff at the flagship site were offered a buyout so that a “20% nicer Gawker” could be built in its place.

In a move that illustrates how far the workplace has come from hushed conversations around the watercooler, The Awl discovered from a Gawker employee that this weeks’ round of layoffs was conducted in part from the popular group messaging platform Slack: “We’re finding out who got laid off by looking at the list of disabled Slack accounts. They’re doing it one by one instead of a group thing. Literally people getting DMed to come into a conf [sic] room. And then their Slack is killed.”

There is no easy way to conduct layoffs, whether it’s two people or 200. It’s an even bigger challenge, given all the tools we have to communicate digitally on the job. And with the rise of remote workers, not everyone can be called into the conference room to be handed a pink slip in person. Is it time to establish a new etiquette for firing people?

Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, believes that some things shouldn’t change. “Whether in a brick and mortar office, or a distributed company where everyone works at home, the same rules apply when it comes to laying off team members,” she tells Fast Company. “Be kind and treat people decently, and with the integrity that you hopefully strive for within every aspect at your company.”

That includes how you communicate company changes and layoffs. Susan Warner, an employment lawyer at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, says an announcement through a chat or internal IM system is too informal. “Companies using this method are treading in a danger zone because there is too much space for misinterpretation,” she explains, adding, “in person, management can convey a certain tone and demeanor and have greater control over how the message is delivered.”

This is obviously not possible when dealing with remote workers. Warner says that legally an employer can fire a person via email, or by any method it chooses, even though she recommends that terminations should be conducted in-person with an HR representative present. She also notes that email may be the only option, such as when an employee has stopped coming to work and doesn’t return phone calls.

“At a minimum it should be done live by phone or Skype,” says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting firm. The Awl’s report points out that Jezebel staff were fired over the phone.

Lewis notes that speed is key, “so you can get it over with, shorten the suspense and speculation period, and then move on.” For employees in a satellite office, although he would prefer to fly someone to do the layoffs in person, he admits, “You will still have those observing the ones being called to the conference room and wondering if they are next, until it is over.

As for employees figuring out who got cut via digital accounts shutting down, Lewis says that’s trickier to manage. Sending out a memo, or calling a conference to announce layoffs ahead of actually firing people, may not be the best way. “I would not communicate the news first,” says Lewis.

Time remains of the essence. After witnessing the fallout from a client who had to fire five employees at once —one of whom returned to his desk, downloaded his contacts, wiped his hard drive and sent a nasty message to remaining staff and clients he worked with—he advises shutting down all access to internal systems at the same time employees are being summoned to a meeting or a phone call that will inform them they will be fired. Lewis maintains that shutting off someone’s email access or Slack account should not be transparent to others on staff.

Sutton Fell says companies need to plan how to deal with access to communication tools in advance of a layoff. Coordination between the executives or managers, HR, and the IT department to create a list of every type of communication tool used at the company can be useful as a checklist to make sure each item is being taken care of, she says.

Before the rumor mill can get churning among those left standing, Lewis says is critical to gather remaining staff and communicate who is no longer with the firm. “No editorial comments,” he cautions. “No reasons, except in cases where the layoff is tied to business conditions so as to paint those leaving as innocent bystanders per se versus having brought the termination onto themselves.”

This allows management to control the message, otherwise the remaining employees will be free to fill in the blanks. “You do not want to promise that this ‘is the last layoff we will ever have’ or similar,” he adds.

“When you are running a company with remote workers as well as on-site workers, or an entirely remote workforce, it’s important to not overlook communicating with remaining remote employees and related freelancers,” Sutton Fell advises. “Just because they are not in the same office as you does not mean they won’t be affected.”

She believes that even sending a timely email to the team members remaining with the company to let them know what is happening is very important. “Even better is an individual personal phone call or verbal chat to convey they whys and whats of what is going on, and to provide a strategy for moving forward,” she says.

Warner says such open communication reassures the employees that the company is facing the issue head on. “It allows employees to ask questions of management to prevent misinformation from spreading throughout the company.” And she underscores, “A company should never provide reasons why specific people have been let go because of privacy concerns and other potential issues they could confront.”