May 24, 2024

© Washington Post illustration; iStock/TWP

When an employee with Amazon’s gaming unit tried to sign in for work last Tuesday, she found her access to most internal systems had been revoked. Her calendar had been cleared, except for a 15-minute meeting labeled “Organizational Update.”

During the meeting, a manager read from a corporate script as he explained her position had been eliminated. The conversation felt impersonal after the years she’d spent with the company.

The employee felt hurt. “I’m a human being,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize her severance package. “Any employee should get a personal approach here in that situation. I was expecting something more than just the standard script.”

A spokesperson for Amazon told The Washington Post that “employees who were impacted by role eliminations maintained access to internal email, chat, and other resources via the AtoZ app.” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Early in the pandemic, as offices were shuttered across the country and workers logged on from home, remote layoffs were a necessity. But some companies where workers have returned to offices are still opting to break the news virtually. Last week, McDonald’s asked corporate employees to work from home while it delivered layoff decisions that affected hundreds of workers. Twitter made a similar move back in November. Rather than close its offices when thinning its ranks in January, Google made layoff announcements over email, a move that some workers found callous.

The calculus of carrying out virtual layoffs is complicated. Some people have likened it to being broken up with via text, arguing it is an insensitive way to receive such personal news. But if handled correctly, virtual layoffs can make a painful experience a little less so, according to Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners. She described shutting the office during layoffs as a way to be sensitive to employees’ needs during a difficult moment — as long as the news is delivered in a direct conversation with a manager rather than a mass notification.

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“If I were getting laid off, would I rather be informed in a conference room and then be escorted out the hallway when I’m having very intense emotions, or would I rather hang up the Zoom call and then go cry in my pillow at my house?” Kriegel said. “It’s much more compassionate for the employee to be able to have that safety.”

The potential for privacy is part of the reason McDonald’s decided to shutter offices ahead of layoffs, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s strategy who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. The goal was to provide “dignity, confidentiality and comfort” to employees, the person told The Post, sparing them a long walk out of the office with their belongings in a cardboard box.

The McDonald’s global headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

There’s also a security factor: Conducting layoffs remotely might prevent employees from trashing the office on their way out, or doing something even more destructive. When Twitter prepared to slash its workforce by 50 percent in November, the company closed offices as a way to prevent disgruntled employees from interfering with Twitter systems and customer information, the company said in an email announcing the decision.

“To help ensure the safety of each employee as well as Twitter systems and customer data, our offices will be temporarily closed and all badge access will be suspended,” the email said, according to reporting from The Post. “If you are in an office or on your way to an office, please return home.”

Twitter employees were then notified about their job status via email. The company did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

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Google made headlines in January when it delivered the biggest cuts in its history via mass email. Some workers got their termination notices while they were asleep, just minutes before the company posted the announcement publicly. Employees who were cut immediately had their email access revoked and were instructed to sign up for a new email account that would be used to handle severance matters, The Post reported. Some showed up to work only to find their security badges no longer let them into the building.

In response to a request for comment, Google referred The Post to a blog post from CEO Sundar Pichai about the January layoffs, in which he said the cuts weigh “heavily on me, and I take full responsibility for the decisions that led us here.”

Digital mortgage lender received backlash after it laid off 900 employees in a brief Zoom call in 2021. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg also addressed laid-off staffers with a short Zoom call back in November, in which he did not take questions and the chat function was disabled, The Post reported.

No matter how workers find out about being laid off, “it’s going to be painful,” according to Sima Sajjadiani, assistant professor in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. But research shows that there’s a benefit to communicating bad news in person, to “have that awkward conversation,” Sajjadiani said. “It’s more humane and it’s more dignified.”

Laying off employees remotely denies them a semblance of closure, Sajjadiani said. As uncomfortable as it may be, the chance for employees to say goodbye and pack up their belongings is an important part of the process.

“A layoff is a loss,” Sajjadiani said. “It’s not just a job you’re losing. It’s your relationships with your friends, your colleagues, your network.”

When companies choose not to have layoff conversations, things can get ugly. United Furniture Industries is now facing a class-action lawsuit after terminating more than 2,600 employees as the company shut down just before Thanksgiving, breaking the news with emails and text messages sent “in the middle of the night.” The lawsuit claims that employee’s rights were violated because the company failed to provide written notice of mass layoffs 60 days before the move was carried out, as is required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act.

Landing on the right mode of delivering the news depends on the organization and the people being affected, according to Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and vice president of human resource services for Engage PEO. Closing offices ahead of layoffs when your company normally works in-person may be more anxiety-inducing for employees. So would being summoned to the office for a tough conversation when you normally work remotely.

“You need to respect the culture of your organization,” Matsis-McCready said. For companies using a hybrid model, “it really is a balancing act” of deciding what’s right for the employees being laid off.

While she was at the pool with her family last summer, Lauren B. Weinstein got a phone call from her boss, letting her know she was losing her job at Degreed, an education technology company. There was something merciful about being able to process the news in private, Weinstein said. But it can also feel strange.

“In some way, it’s more difficult because your world just disappears overnight,” Weinstein said. “You close your laptop and there’s no one else there.”

After she learned she was being let go, Weinstein, a career expert, was asked to lead workshops for other employees losing their jobs to help them navigate the situation. It was difficult to swallow her pride, Weinstein said, but holding space for others who were grappling with the tangle of emotions that come with being laid off helped her reach some acceptance.

“The company says it’s not personal, it’s just a business decision,” Weinstein said. “Yet no matter what, it feels extremely personal. It just really hurts.”