Last week, I was fired up by an article in the New York Times, “Laid Off in Your Living Room: The Chaos of Remote Job Cuts.” I posted the article and my comment on LinkedIn. From my profile page and various LI groups, it has drawn more than 20k impressions, 100 reactions, and 45 comments.
Most comments supported my view that the layoff of remote workers (and all workers) should be treated with more compassion than what is currently being displayed. The idea of “notifying” employees of termination by cutting off their IT access horrified many people. Layoffs don’t have to be callous.
Other comments stated that there is rise in IT breaches by employees that is costly to businesses, that can destroy infrastructure and that can lead to the theft of Intellectual Property (IP). Others simply said the business world is brutal and employees need to toughen up.
This column is intended to show a path for laying off employees (remote, hybrid, and office-based) with compassion; in a manner that builds the brand, decreases survivor guilt (and the resulting loss of productivity) and reduces the resignation of your best employees that comes with layoffs. It will also show how to protect the company’s IT infrastructure and the organization’s IP.
Additional posts were pointed out to me over the weekend, such as Kimberly Diaz who spoke about being laid off from YouTube during a business trip. The other was about an ex-Google employee laid off when she was eight months pregnant — one week before her maternity leave. Finally, there was a ten-year Google employee laid off while in the hospital holding her hours-old newborn.
I would not want these headlines for my company. I don’t understand these decisions, rather than delaying these women’s layoffs until after maternity leave was over.
Do other employees of YouTube or Google like reading these stories? I doubt it, and that is the point. How corporations lay off employees is as important as achieving the cost cutting or strategic focus that caused the layoffs.
Why? Because of the impact on survivors. Research shows that survivors often have a 20 percent decline in performance after a layoff. In addition, if these survivors are not convinced of the company’s new direction or if they don’t believe that management can achieve their growth strategies, they are likely to resign. This is especially true of your high performers and your high-potential employees. If they believe the opportunities for challenging opportunities, big pay raises, bonuses, and stock options are over, they will move to greener pastures.
Why frustrate an already frustrated workforce with poorly planned layoffs, especially in a time of falling productivity?
In 2022, US productivity was down 4.1 percent on an annualized basis according to the US Department of Labor. In an interview with NPR, Julia Pollak, chief economist with ZipRecruiter said the causes are burnout, frustration, and ennui. Ennui is a feeling of listlessness, and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.
When companies lay off employees heartlessly, they are adding to burnout, frustration, and ennui.
IT experts, like those who responded to my LinkedIn post last week, point at that the average annual cost of insider IT threats has skyrocketed up about 30% to $11.45 million in just the last two years. True. It is actually more costly. According to Globel Newswire’s Global Cybersecurity Study, insider threats cost organizations $15.4 million annually, up 34 percent from 2020. The study attributes the increase to “employees who leave the organization and employees, contractors, and third-party are an attractive attack vector for cybercriminals due to their far-reaching access to critical systems, data, and infrastructure.” The latter group is called the “negligent insider.” As a remedy, they recommend employee training, making sure employee devices are secure at all times, not putting highly confidential data on unsecured devices, and keeping all upgrades current.
They don’t specifically call out laid off employees. However, securing IT information, servers and devices is critically important during layoffs. It can be achieved without appearing harsh to those being laid off.
How to lay off employees compassionately without endangering IP and IT infrastructure.
- Comply with Warren Act. It requires employers to provide notice 60 days in advance of covered plant closings and covered mass layoffs, generally when an employer has 100 or more employees. This notice must be provided to either affected workers or their representatives (e.g., a labor union); to the State dislocated worker unit; and to the appropriate unit of local government.
- Prepare by job family a hierarchy of the highest to least skilled performers who have been on a job for a year or more. Seniority breaks a tie. Hold on to employees who have unique skills for future projects or roles.
- Run a statistical analysis to determine that there has been no adverse impact bias based on protected class status such as age, race, gender, national origin, and so on. If this is an international layoff, follow the adverse impact laws and regulations for each country of impacted employees. In some countries, you will be required to notify the government first, then worker councils, or unions.
- Delay layoffs of employees on medical and Family Medical Leave Act leaves until they return from leave.
- Tell employees traveling by a phone call or ZOOM meeting (preferable) as they will find out by employee gossip if not told. However, please do not take any action (except cutting them off from servers they don’t need), until they have returned.
- After final decisions are made by executives, coordinate the timing and communications of layoffs and the shutting off access of IT servers in a stepped manner.
- Executive leaders of impacted employees
- Managers that need to tell the informed employees.
- Coordinate the turnoff access to IT servers so that employees are told first. Certain servers (assuming they include no personal items or examples of their work, such as past performance appraisals), can be turned off at the beginning of the meetings. Set up a process to collect from employees’ confidential information in files in their possession.
- Managers and HR determine if any employee may be violent or be an insider threat to IP or IT servers and speak with these employees separately in a secure and non-threatening environment. Avoid, escorting employees out the door by uniformed security officers unless you have just cause.
- Inform all employees face-to-face or by ZOOM if face-to-face is not possible. For hybrid workers in the same metropolitan area, summon them to the office to join the meeting with office workers.
- Most employees will not be able to recall details about severance, how to file for unemployment, job placement assistance, future career fares, COBRA benefits continuation, and retirement benefits. Provide the times and places for these meetings by HR for later in the day or the next day. Provide contact information for future follow up to these resources.
- With managers present, allow employees to say goodbye to friends and collect their belongings. Some companies allow employees to pick up their personal items the next day with their managers to avoid a “rush to the door” experience.
- After the affected employees are told, managers tell the survivors in group face-to-face meetings and with ZOOM for remote employees that these actions are over. (My advice to executive is not to dribble out layoffs. Your workforce will find it too hard to focus on serving your customers with constant worry and unending gossip, such as “Who do you think will be next?”) This process can be followed for large layoffs, office by office in a synchronized manner.–even controlling for time zone differences in the US.
- Conduct a face-to-face exist interview (ZOOM for remote employees) which covers typical exist interview questions and the return of any IP and other sensitive information and agreement not to violate non-disclosure agreement signed when they were hired.
My experience has been that this process protects company IP, other sensitive material, prevents damage to IP infrastructure and minimizes the sting of being laid off. No one is told in the middle of the night or learns of being laid off by having their IT access shut off before a face-to-face meeting.
Any layoff is awful if you are the one laid off. (There are exceptions, such as the employee who was looking for early retirement and those who have a job offer and had not resigned). However, these steps if done well, will minimize the lost productivity of the survivors and resignation of high potential employees. For the latter, what is also required to retain them is confidence in the company’s future plans to grow and win in the marketplace. Layoffs don’t have to be callous.
Above all, what matters is the employees’ reading of managements intention. Is it to help laid- off employees transition to a good place, to send as good a signal as possible to the survivors, or simply get rid of the dead weight, ASAP. Intent and impressions matter if you want your talented and committed survivors to move forward successfully.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and managing partner of InnovationOne, LLC. He works with organizations to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. He is quoted business journals such as The Wall Street Journal, Workforce Management, and CEO Magazine. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at http://www.VictorHRConsultant.com.