A reader writes:
I work in a tech sector, and this week my fully-remote company announced that they were laying off an entire department. I’m a manager, so I knew about this 24 hours before it happened, but what they did was send out a mass email to the department that was being laid off, letting them know that their computers would be shut down in 30 minutes.
A lot of people asked why they chose to lay off over a dozen employees — many of whom had worked here five or more years — without so much as a Zoom call. While upper management hemmed and hawed and tried to deflect, their reasoning boiled down to:
1. Not wanting to make our HR person “sit through twelve awkward firing meetings”
2. Email layoffs being “best practices” in many cases
3. Wanting to avoid “potential conflict with upset employees” (but the laid-off employees made their thoughts well-known in the all-employee Slack channel, so this one didn’t even work?)
I’ve known for a while that this company is deeply dysfunctional, but this round of layoffs struck me as especially callous and toxic. I know there’s no good way to lay off an employee, but certainly this is one of the worst?
They told you laying people off by email was a “best practice”?
If your company bothered looking into best practices around layoffs, they’d find that “do it with a real conversation, not an email” is the recommended best practice.
Laying people off over email is cowardly, and it’s also bad management. When you’re ending someone’s livelihood — something that can be devastating to an employee — you owe them a real conversation. If the size of the group makes that impractical (12 people is nowhere near that number), you at least owe them a group meeting where you explain what’s happening and why, rather than an impersonal mass email.
Doing it by email is also really impractical! Lots of people go more than 30 minutes without checking their email. Many people go hours. What if someone doesn’t see the email and then is mystified about why their computer is suddenly shutting down? They’re going to be contacting IT and then … what, IT gets to deliver the news to them? Given how tightly controlled the messaging is with most layoffs (for legal and PR reasons), letting a blindsided IT person stumble through that message is a terrible idea — not to mention cruel to both of them. (I once worked for someone who fired an employee via voicemail — which the person didn’t hear, and so they showed up for work the next day and the confused receptionist ended up blurting it out. It was horrible for everyone.)
There can be some exceptions to this. With really large layoffs, some companies will do a pre-announcement (layoffs are coming tomorrow, we’ll notify the affected people at 9 am) and then message those people at the pre-determined time when they know to be checking. Even that, frankly, is pretty horrible — it makes people feel like faceless cogs who didn’t get the dignity of a face-to-face conversation after working for the company for, in many cases, years. But with really enormous layoffs, it’s become more common.
But this was 12 people. Twelve. Your HR person couldn’t manage to sit through 12 meetings? And they actually were willing to say that as a reason?
And the whole “wanting to avoid potential conflict with upset employees”? If you’re laying people off, some people are going to be upset; that’s how this goes. Hiding from that reality is crappy — and likely to make people more upset than if they were shown some basic respect and courtesy. Of course managers don’t need to take abuse from upset people, but most people being laid off don’t get abusive. They might show some emotion and they might want to know why — and handling that respectfully is part of the responsibility of employing people. Trying to hide from that obligation behind an email is, again, cowardly.
Everything about the way your company did this is them basically announcing, “We’re prioritizing our own mild discomfort ahead of the people who are losing their source of income.”
Even if we take basic human empathy out of this (which we shouldn’t) and look at it from a strictly business perspective, smart companies know that they have multiple audiences when they’re doing layoffs: (1) the people being laid off (who should be treated with as much dignity and respect as possible — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because treating people disrespectfully significantly increases the odds that they’ll start looking into whether they have any legal recourse against you for anything that happened during their employment), (2) remaining employees, who will pay a lot of attention to how their laid-off coworkers are treated, assume they could be treated similarly in the future, and calculate their loyalty and good will to the company accordingly, and (3) everyone else, including people they might want to hire in the future. Your company failed on all of these counts.