Business

This layoff could have been an email. Is there a good way to lose your job as a remote worker?

Is there a good way to lay off a remote worker? 

Four years after remote work became the norm for a huge section of the labour force, it appears some companies are still struggling with the etiquette of letting someone go virtually. And amid a gradually cooling labour market and mass layoffs in several sectors, such as media and the tech industry, it’s become a common situation to be let go online.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Bell employees were supposedly laid off in 10-minute group virtual meetings, a move the union representing them called “beyond shameful.” In a news release, the union claimed that Bell’s human resources and labour manager read a notice and didn’t allow anyone to un-mute to ask questions.

“These members have been living in dread of a meeting invite to find out they’ve lost their job since Bell announced the termination of thousands of jobs almost six weeks ago,” Unifor national president Lana Payne said in the release.

CBC News has reached out to Bell to confirm the details. 

While this example of virtual group layoffs is making headlines, Bell is far from the first.

Allison Venditti, founder of Moms at Work, says there are good ways to lay off people virtually, and it’s not in groups. (Submitted by Allison Venditti)

It’s “incredibly unprofessional,” said Allison Venditti, a human resources expert in Toronto who is also the founder of advocacy group Moms at Work, Canada’s largest organization for working mothers.

“This isn’t normal and it shouldn’t be,” Venditti said. “We’re losing the human in human resources.”

Legally, as long as it’s followed up by a notification in writing, there’s nothing stopping employers from terminating people virtually, even in mass meetings, said Andrew Monkhouse, managing partner at Toronto employment law firm Monkhouse Law and an adjunct professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

WATCH | ‘Home fever’ affects remote workers: 

Are you getting ‘home fever’ while working remotely?

Working from home has become the new normal for many since the pandemic, but for some employees, teleworking has started to lose its shine.

“But from a human resources, human being perspective, terminating people in unorthodox ways or impersonal ways, like a … mass zoom call, is very much suboptimal, and it doesn’t come across as being polite or reasonable to the employee that’s being let go,” Monkhouse told CBC News.

A short history of infamous layoffs

About 20 per cent of Canadians still work most of their hours from home, Statistics Canada reported in January. While that’s a drop from 40 per cent in 2020, it’s still much higher than pre-pandemic level of seven per cent.

And it’s not a trend that seems to be going away. A 2023 paper from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that job postings saying employees could work remotely one day or more a week increased five-fold in Canada from 2019 to 2023.

The researchers found that remote work is more common in jobs with higher levels of computer use, higher earnings and that require higher levels of education, according to an analysis by  the World Economic Forum.

And with remote work, inevitably, comes remote layoffs. Although some are worse than others.

Infamous examples include used car retailer Carvana reportedly disconnecting employees from work apps like Slack in 2022 before sending out an invitation to a Zoom meeting where workers found out whether they’d been cut. Thousands of employees at tech companies Meta and Twitter learned of confirmation of their layoffs in emails in 2022.

A few months before that, hundreds of U.K. ferry workers were fired via Zoom call. 

In 2021, Better.com’s CEO laid off 900 employees in a Zoom webinar just before the holidays. That same year, HuffPost Canada employees found themselves out of work after being invited to a group Zoom meeting with the password “Spring is here.” (Full disclosure: I was one of the affected employees.)

On TikTok, Generation Z has been posting videos of their virtual layoffs in every industry, from tech to service to teaching. Some of the popular “get laid off with me” videos are real recordings of the virtual meetings where the axe drops, while others are reenactments. Some even involve people putting on makeup (a popular “get ready with me” video style on the platform) while prepping for what they know is coming.

In one nine-minute video with 2.4 millions views since it was posted in January, creator Brittany Pietsch films the virtual meeting where she’s laid off by who she claims is two people she doesn’t know.

“Enjoy the trauma,” she writes in text overlaying the video.

There are ways to do it better

It’s not always easy for an employer to strike the right balance when laying off a remote employee, Monkhouse noted, adding that asking people to come into the office — potentially for the first time — just to get laid off would potentially be even more upsetting.

WATCH | Twitter employees laid off in email: 

Twitter employees get layoff news via email

Simon Balmain tells Reuters how he found out he was losing his job at Twitter — news that was conveyed via email.

But employers need to think carefully about how they approach layoffs and put themselves in the worker’s shoes, he warned, as those who feel they were mistreated in the process are “much more likely” to negotiate their severance package or start an official legal claim.

“A little humanity in terminating someone, which has a very large effect on that person, goes a long way,” he said. “And it can really save money down the road.”

Losing your job is a traumatic experience, Venditti said, and the process of terminating someone should involve compassion, care, time and resources. People need to be allowed to ask questions, she added.

Venditti says it’s totally acceptable to lay off remote workers virtually, but it should be done individually — not in mass groups.

“Is it faster? Yeah. Is it nice? No,” Venditti said.

“It’s wrong — on a professional level, on a HR level, on a personal level, it’s wrong.”

 

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