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December 7, 2022

How Not to Let Go of Remote Workers

Kevin Dunne

Losing your job is one of the most stressful things that can happen to anyone. For remote workers, suffering it in isolation is an added burden.

And being let go is something the world is having to get used to again – with poor post-pandemic growth running headlong into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With a global recession now looming, this has left remote workers, perhaps more than any others, feeling and being in the “firing” line.

"Bosses admit they’d start with remote workers during a layoff," reported fortune.com, while GoodHire, a U.S. employment screening firm, found that, "8 in 10 workers felt working from home would make them more vulnerable in a layoff."

A Case Study of How Not to Let Go of Remote Workers

While it doesn’t make it much easier at the time, most people come to accept that mass redundancies are sometimes a necessity in the face of harsh economic reality.

They also accept it doesn’t necessarily make a company or leader “evil,” either. But if a company handles this kind of transaction poorly and without compassion, they will likely damage their business's reputation.

Think Twitter, for instance. Within hours of Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media giant, thousands of staff were told working from home was over and they were at risk of losing their jobs. Something they would be informed of by email.

Before any of that happened, though, many were locked out of company systems. The writing was on the virtual wall; a case study of how not to let go of remote workers.

Are Remote Workers More at Risk of Quiet Firing?

It seems, then, that the etiquette around dismissing employees doesn't translate as well to remote working.

So much for the theory. Jenny (not her real name) suffered the reality of what you might call "worst-practice" when it comes to letting go of remote workers earlier this year.

She had worked in the recruitment industry for six months but it didn’t take that long for things to go wrong.

She said: “Even before my exit, I felt I was being frozen out by my manager and the team I worked with. I was asked to work remotely to meet business needs, which effectively shut me off from the team and soon the amount of work I was being asked to do also decreased.

“The sense of being an outcast had a negative effect on my wellbeing and, at times, I found the overall atmosphere at work hostile.”

Essentially, quiet firing then. And quick too. Jenny added, “I was the only member of staff that was let go. I’d been to a meeting a month prior to discuss the expectations of my role, so the process took about four weeks.”

Now settled in a new role, Jenny added, “The experience left me humiliated and embarrassed. I was let go because my manager avoided having difficult conversations with me early on, in regard to whether I was a good fit. My advice would be to not see what has happened as a personal failure.

“It’s a difficult situation when you face the consequences of someone’s lack of honesty at work – especially if it resulted in them deliberately setting you up to fail. I do think, though, remote working made me more vulnerable to being let go, especially as I was the only team member working remotely.”

Is There Bias Against Remote Workers?

And there may be a basis for this fear of proximity bias, according to Kristi Drew of U.S. management consultants Korn Ferry.

She said: “Managers may be tempted to look first at remote employees. Proximity bias is real; people naturally favor those whom they see regularly.”

But the firm’s HR senior client partner Ron Porter warned, “Managers can challenge themselves to make sure that they’re not making the easy decision, versus the one that’s best for the business.

“This includes asking oneself about biases against remote employees, and being honest about one’s own feelings about in-office time.”

How to Let Remote Workers Go the Dignified Way

So how should these things be handled? Letting people go is never easy, but employers can make it easier by remaining compassionate and empathetic, but also staying attuned to the real-life implications of redundancy. This means ensuring people are paid a fair redundancy package, helping them to find alternative roles in the organization, or supporting them in their search for a new job.

The law around redundancy, however, is different the world over. For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, “there is no requirement in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for severance pay,” In the U.K., however, statutory redundancy pay does exist.

Letting People Go Virtually

Deborah (not her real name) is an HR Director at a local authority in the U.K. and, while she prefers in-person meetings if people have to be let go, she believes it can still be done sensitively online.

She said, “Some people may prefer to meet online, and have the flexibility of being at home. So actually offering online or face-to-face can be positive, giving the employee choice.

“I’d never inform an employee of an exit by text or email. If a meeting has to take place online, I’d set up a couple of slots so I could share the information, then meet again once the employee has had a chance to process the information. Keeping the offer of a later face-to-face meeting is also important.”

Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Preparation is vital in handling delicate issues like redundancy, and Deborah added, “Ensure the information and reasons for the decision are very clear, and that you also have practical information to hand – such as notice periods, how you will support with alternative roles or career counseling, financial information, such as severance figures, and whether there are any alternatives for discussion or consultation.”

But no matter how well or sensitively you plan for a “difficult conversation,” it can always go wrong.

Deborah tries to be ready for that. She said, “I’ve had situations where employees will initially be angry. The best thing to do is take a break, allowing someone the time and space to process the information.

“We invest in supporting staff who are leaving the organization. It’s important they feel treated with dignity, because that aspect of the organization’s culture impacts how those still employed feel.”

How to Let Remote Workers Go: The Right Way

Letting someone go is never easy. But it's important to make the process as supportive and straightforward as possible.

Before ending someone's employment, check that the decision is legal and fair. Be clear about the decision and why it has been made. Give the person time to respond, and listen carefully to their concerns.

Carefully manage their exit from the organization, and be open and honest about their departure with the rest of your team.

By demonstrating fairness, compassion and professionalism, you'll keep your team’s trust and maintain a positive working atmosphere.

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