The days of learning you’ve been laid off in a meeting with your boss appear to be disappearing as companies turn to increasingly impersonal methods to cut jobs.
Tech companies in the midst of sweeping cost-cutting efforts are using email to lay off staff, eliminating one-on-one communication, in a move that threatens to make an already difficult situation worse for those affected. For example, Meta Platforms Inc. last week announced another 10,000 job cuts as chief executive Mark Zuckerberg makes good on his pledge to rein in costs during his “year of efficiency.” But laid-off workers, many of whom work remotely, didn’t find out they’d lost their jobs via phone calls from managers. Instead, they learned their fate through “impersonal, automated” emails, says one former Meta employee. “We knew there would be more layoffs, so it wasn’t a total shock,” Mary Prescott, a recruiter, told Insider, “but the way it was done felt very cold and corporate.”
Meta isn’t the only company to resort to email to relay bad news. Amazon.com Inc. also sent out emails to laid-off staff during its round of cuts in January. So, too, did Alphabet Inc.’s Google earlier this year. Former Google employees say the emails, which offered no explanation for why positions were being eliminated, went out to people on medical leave, someone who had been an employee for 20 years and, in one case, to a woman in the midst of giving birth.
Getting an email announcing you’ve been fired seems bad enough, but it can be harsher still. At Twitter Inc., some employees learned they’d been laid off after discovering they’d been locked out of their computers. Another employee resorted to asking Elon Musk on Twitter if he was still employed. Other companies have turned to mass culls via video conference. In 2021, the chief executive of Better.com went viral for laying off 900 staffers all at once on a Zoom call, telling attendees: “If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.” He was forced to take a leave of absence after the public outcry.
Experts say the dehumanizing of layoffs is part of a troubling trend in the tech sector that’s becoming more common as employees work off-site due to remote and hybrid work arrangements. “There seems to be a downward spiral in the way layoffs in tech are being handled,” say employment lawyers Howard Levitt and Kathryn Marshall at Levitt-Sheikh LLP. “The rise in a remote workforce can leave employers forgetting that there are real humans behind the computer screens.”
Impersonal methods of conducting job cuts aren’t going over well with workers. A recent survey of employees in the United States found that 85 per cent think layoffs by email are wrong, with 72 per cent saying an in-person meeting should be the norm, according to Eagle Hill Consulting LLC.
Companies may think it’s more efficient to lay off a large number of staffers via email — especially if they’re working out of office — but such actions could come back to haunt them. “Over the long term, employers that fail to lay off workers with dignity will develop a reputation as disrespectful to its workforce,” Melissa Jezior, chief executive of Eagle Hill Consulting LLC, says in a press release. “And that will eventually harm a company’s brand, reputation, ability to attract workers, and the bottom line.”
Indeed, studies show that layoffs can lower the productivity of workers left behind, with many experiencing a kind of low-grade trauma after the cuts. One-third of employees say they’ve experienced survivors’ guilt from watching colleagues lose their jobs during mass culls, according to research conducted in 2020 by The Myers-Briggs Co. That means employers should go the extra mile to ensure layoffs are conducted with respect, John Hackston, head of thought leadership at Myers-Briggs, tells The Telegraph.
“Employers need to make sure not to say things like ‘well you should be happy to have a job.’ They also need to treat the people who are laid off as much like human beings as possible, and the remaining employees need to see that they are doing this,” he says.
To make layoffs more respectful, companies should break the news in face-to-face meetings, says Jezior at Eagle Hill. Of course, that’s more challenging when employees are working from home. But employers should still make the effort, say lawyers Levitt and Marshall. “It is simple. Treat people like people, not robots.”
As it stands, remote workers don’t get the same protections in-office employees do during mass layoffs. For example, under current labour laws in the province of Ontario, people who work exclusively from home aren’t entitled to eight weeks’ notice or pay in lieu that’s required for employees who work from the office. Labour Minister Monte McNaughton is proposing changes to the law so that remote workers get their due. “Whether you commute to work every day or not shouldn’t determine what you are owed. No billion-dollar company should be treating their remote employees as second-class,” he says in a release announcing his plans.
One would think that extending dignity to all employees — remote or not — shouldn’t need to be enshrined into law. Yet we’re all watching respect get routinely tossed aside as companies fire people via email, or worse, fail to inform them at all. Ontario’s move to enshrine remote workers’ rights into law is a step in the right direction. But it would be nice if companies woke up to the negative effects cold layoff practices have on their remaining workforce, reputation and balance sheets without being forced.