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Managing remote terminations during COVID-19

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Managing remote terminations during COVID-19


The pandemic has created additional challenges around the difficult task of terminating employees, events which—if handled poorly—can precipitate incidents of workplace violence.

Handled poorly, any termination has the potential to amplify an employee’s sense of uncertainty, shock, and even hostility towards you and your organization. As the pandemic stretches on and the economy strains under pressure, employees are experiencing many profound stressors that – when combined with feelings of betrayal, abandonment, or aggression – can become precursors to workplace violence. 

With this new reality as a backdrop, many organizations facing financial challenges arising from COVID-19 may be confronted with the terrible prospect of required reductions in force or even mass layoffs. The notification of termination – already a difficult and challenging task – is complicated by the fact that many employees are currently working remotely during social distancing lockdowns. While most agree that terminations are best handled in personal, face-to-face settings, such meetings are untenable during a world-wide pandemic with quarantine or “safer-at-home” practices in place. 

How best then to compassionately terminate an employee when you don’t have the option for a face-to-face meeting? While it can be tempting to send an email, slack message, or have a separation letter sent to the employee’s home via certified mail, managers should pursue options that offer more respectful and sensitive notifications during this pandemic. Doing so remotely requires strategic creativity and careful coordination.

The goal: Supporting the individual while monitoring for signs of escalation

To the extent possible, an employers’ first objective is to prioritize the preservation of the employee’s dignity during what is bound to be a difficult conversation. With this in mind, it’s generally best to avoid delivering terminations via email or delivered letter without first having a direct (albeit remote) conversation. Since most employees will have the ability to participate in video teleconferencing via platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, or FaceTime, it’s important to consider using these options for the initial notification of termination. Video teleconferencing will allow you to better hear the employee’s concerns or witness reactions to the news while – perhaps more importantly – allowing the employee to receive the notification in the most personal way possible during quarantine or safer-at-home conditions.

A second objective is to gauge the employee’s verbal and nonverbal reactions. Not only are you watching and listening for concerning behaviors or statements, you’re also preparing to use de-escalation strategies if the employee starts to spin towards crisis. Given the very real and potentially devastating impact of the termination (e.g., loss of insurance coverage, inability to pay medical bills) it’s essential to maximize opportunities to use active listening skills, convey empathy, and redirect negative energy--opportunities which simply don’t exist when you notify via email or letter. Not only is this the most compassionate strategy, it may also help to mitigate the risk of workplace violence that can arise from a disgruntled employee who may have felt marginalized, disrespected, or humiliated by the termination process or by a pre-existing issue.

Some remote termination notifications made via video-teleconference have been recorded by employees and posted online, albeit infrequently. While obviously this may not be desirable for an organization or manager, the benefits of video notification (or even via telephone) outweigh any potential issues that can emerge from social media, provided that notifying managers maintain a professional and calm demeanor throughout the exchange.

The following are key considerations for managers when faced with the difficult task of remotely terminating an employee:

Before the notification

In preparing to notify the employee via video, it’s important to first coordinate with your internal partners to organize logistics. Review the following before you make contact with the employee:

  • Do you and the employee know how to use the video teleconference platform? If you’ve never used video teleconferencing platforms, ensure that both you and the employee have the necessary software and knowledge of the program before this very important call. Trying to navigate the mechanics of a video chat for the first time during a termination notification is highly problematic and can contribute to the employee’s stress (and to yours as well). 
  • Who will attend the video call? It’s best to have two persons—typically the employee’s immediate supervisor and a Human Resources professional —participate in the meeting with the employee. Including more than two persons is generally not recommended, as the employee shouldn’t have to face a carousel full of people on the monitor.
  • What materials should you provide? It’s appropriate to share documents the employee needs for out-processing, severance pay, benefits, and other issues (e.g., letters of recommendation) during the notification. Have all documentation organized and ready to launch in an email to the employee so that he/she has everything before the call ends.
  • Do you know where the employee is physically located? While obviously a worst-case scenario, if an employee spirals into crisis upon learning of the termination, do you know where they are located and how to alert authorities if emergency first responders are needed?
  • Who else needs to be informed?
  • Coordinate timing with IT services in order to restrict the employee’s physical and virtual access to company networks concurrent to the notification.
  • The Shipping/Receiving department in your organization will also play a role in arranging for the return of any company property (e.g., laptop, access card) from the employee. With social distancing/lockdown, it may be necessary to return property via mail, drop-off, or other delivery service. Having the details of this procedure in place before notification will enable to you provide instructions and adjust expectations.
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors should be on standby to provide emergency crisis support should the employee request such services. Counselors should be prepared to join the video teleconference and take the hand-off from the notifying supervisor.
  • Your Media Relations/Communications representative may wish to have a prepared statement ready if mass layoffs/terminations are being conducted or if a recording of a termination notification is posted online via social media.
  • Perhaps most importantly, consult with Legal Counsel regarding your general plan and specifically the provisions of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act which imposes a notice obligation on covered employers who implement mass layoffs lasting longer than six months. Some states’ “mini” WARN Acts are more expansive and apply to temporary job loss regardless of duration. While these laws have a “physical calamity” or similar exceptions for which the pandemic may qualify, consulting with Legal Counsel on the timing of notice is a must.

When notifying the employee 

Have a script

A general script of what needs to be covered can be helpful as long as it’s not recited in an impersonal or robotic manner. Once the session is initiated, you may find that remote communications by their nature make it difficult to be direct and straightforward without seeming insensitive or callous. To counteract this, acknowledging the circumstances and using empathetic language can help soften the overall tone of the notification:

“While I would have preferred to share this with you in person, I unfortunately have some difficult news to share with you now. As you know, we’ve experienced a significant impact on our business as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, I’m sorry to say that today will be your last day with our company.”

You can reasonably anticipate that the employee will have questions regarding benefits, severance pay, health insurance/COBRA, and may ask about the selection criteria used to identify employees for termination in a mass layoff. You should script sample answers and be prepared to briefly describe the criteria used for selecting employees to be separated (e.g., performance, seniority, or by function/department). It’s also reasonable to anticipate questions regarding rehiring once the pandemic has eased and the economy has recovered. If you’re unprepared to answer these basic questions, you might contribute to the employee’s sense of uncertainty and compromise confidence.

Be an active listener

Of course, the employee may understandably struggle to process this news and may experience a range of emotions including disbelief, anger, overwhelming anxiety, or even panic. Compassionate management may require you to engage in remote de-escalation using Active Listening Skills (ALS), which can include:

  • Minimal encouragers - With video teleconferencing it’s especially important to let the employee know that you are hearing and digesting what he/she is saying.  Maintaining eye contact through the camera while nodding to demonstrate receipt of information is important, as are occasional verbal confirmations (e.g., “yes, I understand”).  
  • Echoing/mirroring - Managers can demonstrate listening by repeating back key phrases or the last few words spoken by the employee. Doing so proves you’re hearing what was said and tracking the flow of the conversation (e.g., “You’re wondering about your insurance options moving forward….”)
  • Paraphrasing and emotion labeling - When you’re talking to someone who isn’t in the same room, it can be tough to know if they truly understand and register your message and your feelings. This can be a real obstacle when speaking to a remote-working employee who may be escalated or in crisis. By taking information and restating it back to the employee using your own words, you demonstrate that you’re not only paying attention, but that you accurately recognize the core emotions behind the statement.  For instance:


Employee: “What am I going to do? My children have special needs and now I won’t have insurance coverage!”

Manager: “It sounds like health insurance is very important to you and now you’re worried about how you’ll take care of your children’s health needs.”

Throughout this exchange you should demonstrate compassion and empathy in recognition of the emotional impact of the termination. Avoid minimizing the situation (e.g., “Don’t be so dramatic, you’ll bounce back!”) and remember that the employee may already be experiencing profound stressors that have just been exacerbated by the termination. Be listening and watching for any indicators that the employee is devolving into a crisis situation which may require you to quickly leverage in EAP resources during the call or possibly even emergency first responders.

Be vigilant for concerning/problematic behaviors or statements

Unfortunately, difficult terminations can often become precipitating events that contribute to incidents of workplace violence. During any notification of termination, employers should monitor for indicators of a psychological grievance, defined by Frederick Calhoun and Stephen Weston (2003) as “the cause of someone’s distress or reason for complaint/resentment; in threat assessment contexts, it takes on additional meaning to include a highly personal meaning for the subject, often fueling a feeling of being wronged and translating into behaviors related to a sense of mission, destiny, loss, or desire for revenge.” It’s not hard to imagine how a termination might create or amplify such distress.

Observing behavioral indicators of a grievance and the potential for workplace violence can be challenging enough when handled in person; doing so remotely via video teleconference adds a new dimension to the process. During the notification, be alert for potentially concerning behaviors or statements such as:

  • Externalization of blame and absence of any self-insight
  • Feeling persecuted or victimized by the organization
  • Threats or insinuations of violence/other negative consequences against the organization in retaliation for the termination
  • Deterioration in functioning (may be visually-evidenced by a decline in hygiene, dramatic changes in appearance, and/or disruption in sleeping/eating habits)
  • Statements or demeanor suggesting the person is experiencing despair, helplessness, or hopelessness
  • Expressions of homicidal, suicidal, or self-harm thoughts, plans, or intentions
  • Erratic or bizarre behaviors (e.g., evidence of paranoia, delusions) that suggest significant deterioration in mood, thoughts, or ability to function
  • References to past attacks or attackers

Any behaviors or statements made during a termination notification session that cause concern should prompt swift reporting to your organization’s Chief Security Officer and/or workplace violence prevention team. 

Concluding the conversation

Before ending the video conference call, send the employee the email containing the official notice of separation, any key documents regarding benefits, a checklist for out-processing, FAQs, and contact information for any other resources such as EAP. Confirm with the employee while he/she is still on the video teleconference that the email was received. 

After the call has ended, confer with your counterpart and review: Were there any concerning behaviors demonstrated by the employee or evidence of a psychological grievance that should prompt an alert to Security or to the workplace violence prevention team? Was there any indication of emotional distress that may require follow up EAP services? Were all issues and questions handled with compassion and empathy? Having a quick debrief or check-in with your counterpart ensures that subsequent remote notifications will be handled with the greatest sensitivity and regard for safety. 

As nearly everyone struggles to deal with the prolonged health and financial impacts of COVID-19, unfortunately many more will suffer the additional loss of their employment. With quarantines and social distancing in place, remote terminations will be utilized with increasing frequency. Preparing well and approaching this challenge with compassion can help to mitigate the impact on employees, and ensure the dignity, privacy, and safety of all parties involved. 

Authors

COVID-19

Critical Event Management

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