Jun 21, 2022 - Economy

The art of giving out virtual pink-slips

Illustration of a cardboard box full of cursors.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Getting fired used to be an awkward but straightforward affair: the worker gets called into a room, given the reasons for termination, explained the terms of their severance, and has their credentials summarily revoked.

Yes, but: The work-from-home revolution — with its heavy reliance on messaging, virtual meetings and other impersonal methods of communication — may be changing the rules of the firing game.

Why it matters: A few employers are using the remote work phenomenon to take the easy way out when it comes to terminations. In a world where knowledge workers don’t come into the office as frequently as they used to, workplaces may need new rules of etiquette to handle layoffs.

  • "With distributed teams and hybrid workplaces, virtual terminations are likely to become more common,” Jill Hauwiller, founder and principal consultant at Leadership Refinery, tells Axios.
  • “Using emotional intelligence is essential for helping employees through change, especially transitions that are unexpected or unwelcome,” she added.

Driving the news: Recent virtual firings at places like Carvana and Coinbase have been characterized by their abruptness and insensitivity. It’s raised questions about the appropriate way to give workers their walking papers, especially as the economy slows and layoffs rise in key sectors.

Zoom out: Telecommuting has the upper hand, but human resource practitioners tell Axios that hiding behind a screen — or for that matter, the ability to remotely block a worker’s computer privileges at will — is no reason to abandon professionalism and fairness.

  • Virtual firings should be conducted just like its their-person counterpart, these experts say. Employers should have ample documentation, adhere to legal and industry guidelines, and arrange for the return of any company-owned property.

What they’re saying: The WFH boom requires management to review and rethink firing policies, according to Pavel Podkorytov, founder of San Francisco-based HR platform TalentService.

  • “No fire announcements should be made by e-mail or messenger, and certainly not during group calls,” he says, adding that the reasoning should be factual, not emotional.
  • “HR should also find the most appropriate time slot and ensure that both the employee and his manager switch on the cameras during the conversation,” Podkorytov added.

Our thought bubble: Abrupt virtual firings amplify one of the biggest complaints about remote work: how isolating and impersonal it can be. Some discussions, despite how uncomfortable they can be, are best conducted in person.

  • As the economy grows more uncertain, it behooves employers to use empathy and compassion — especially when making a tough decision like ending someone’s employment.
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