The current crisis will leave its mark in various ways, particularly in terms of employment. Fewer customers, melting cash flow and no medium-term prospects, you don’t have to be a fortune teller to guess that the waves of lay-offs will be numerous and often massive.
A few weeks ago Uber laid off 3,500 customer service employees. From a purely economic point of view, there is not much to be said about it: when there are almost no customers left and even in normal times you lose a lot of money, it doesn’t take much to reach the limit of what is bearable and COVID-19 was much more than not much.
It wasn’t the fact that Uber fired that made the noise, it was the manner. By Zoom. 3,500 employees invited to a Zoom conference without knowing what we were going to talk about and who in 3 minutes were told that it was their last day at Uber and that in the evening they would be unemployed.
Before Uber it was Bird who had done the same, then Trip Action, then Weight Watchers (which for the time being was well within a weight loss strategy) and the list is long. We talk about Uber because of its notoriety, because of the volume of redundancies proportional to the size of the company but the real subject is not the company but the way. (We will not discuss violence and the speed of the operation which is not a question of corporate culture but of laws that allow things in some countries and not in others).
Why mass layoffs by videoconference?
The first argument is speed. 3 minutes to separate from 3500 people is a rare efficiency. Even if their local managers had been told to do it, it would have taken much more than 3 minutes per person and would have been spread over a longer period of time. A period where, as it became known, the discomfort would have even reached those who remained but did not yet know and would have remained in uncertainty. The least that can be expected after such a difficult operation is that those who remain are in the least bad shape possible because they are needed to lead the fight for the survival of the company.
Another argument is the protection of managers. Anyone who has ever had to fire someone knows that it is not an easy experience except in cases where it is to get rid of a person who is toxic, harmful to the group or who has committed a crime against the company. But in such circumstances I don’t think that managers having to announce the news individually would have felt so good at the end of the day. But then again, as cynical as it may sound, they will be needed for the future. So we might as well not expose them, we might as well not make them feel bad, responsible or guilty about anything. It is worth noting in passing that the person who has been designated to announce the news looks anything but proud to do so, and one can think that she will carry this burden for all the others for a long time to come. There are people who want to become a star on social networks but I don’t think anyone wants to become one for that very reason. Reason why, having said that, I put a “neutral” illustration to this article and not a screenshot of the video, I think she deserves better than to see her face associated for life with this operation.
A third argument would be truly cynical. Since everything is now done remotely, and some of these employees may even have been working remotely, why not use the same tools we use for everything else! It works, everyone has adopted them, so we might as well take advantage of them.
Un licenciement n’est jamais beau mais il peut être propre
Let us start from the principle, as I said earlier, that in such circumstances a termination is never pleasant for anyone, not even for the person announcing it. A termination is never a beautiful thing when we look at its consequences, but we can think that a little humanity can be welcome, if only out of respect for the person who is leaving.
One of my favorite movies is In the Air, starring George Clooney. Ryan Bingham, the character he plays, does one of the worst jobs in the world: he fires people for the companies that are his clients. Proof if any that the job is so dirty and badly lived that sometimes we prefer to leave it to people outside the company. But what he likes about this job is that it allows him to travel a lot and he loves that! With time he has learned to “depersonalize” the thing. Good for him.
But one day, technology will burst into his business and a new tool will revolutionize practices: videoconferencing. Simpler, faster and above all cheaper than sending consultants across the country with all the costs that this entails. He sees the fact that he will stop travelling but the fight against technology and the gains it allows is lost in advance and he bows down to his boss. He will fire from a distance.
But one day one of his colleagues mishandled a situation at a distance and the dismissed person ended up committing suicide.
At the end of the experiment, at the end of the videoconferences, Ryan Bingham and his colleagues will be back on planes.
What the sequence teaches us is that at a distance the message is not passed on in the same way and that we are less well equipped to capture the feelings of others but also less equipped to defuse a situation, to ensure that despite the situation the person does not collapse.
For the record, the traumatized colleague in question will resign immediately by text message, which will make her boss say that the younger generation lacks life skills.
The employees who stay end up forgetting the ones who left…
Without considering such extreme cases there are ways of doing things that are ill-suited to critical situations.
And then there’s the rest of us. They, you might say, they’re not a problem since they keep their jobs. Well, not necessarily.
Many may feel what is called “survivor syndrome” and feel guilty about keeping their jobs. For the company, the situation is often difficult at such times and, despite the human drama of a mass layoff, it is necessary to ensure that those who remain are fully engaged. And depending on the way you go about it, they will be much less so.
I will also always remember what one of my first managers told me when I started out about such situations (yes…junior in HR consulting often means starting with layoff programs, especially when the economy is bad, and not dealing with strategic projects). He told me that those who stayed would always end up forgetting, in time, those who had left. It’s sad, but that’s how it is. On the other hand, he added that they would never forget the way they had left. Badly managing such a sequence can be disastrous for the image that the “survivors” have of their company, for their commitment, their motivation, their desire to do their job well, to respect the rules etc.
You don’t save a company when the remaining employees no longer want to fight for it.
In a few weeks or months there is a good chance that in many companies some people will have to make difficult decisions, others will have to announce them and take them on board. And this may even include employees who have been working remotely for long periods of time, who have had little or no contact with the company for months and one may be tempted to break the news to others by the new tools that have emerged reinforced from remote work. Now that we have supposedly succeeded in our digital transformation thanks to COVID Consulting, we might as well assume the whole thing, don’t we?
So before inviting one, ten, a hundred or a thousand employees to a videoconference, think about it.