Employee Layoffs, Even During a Pandemic, Should be Executed with Sensitivity

Companies Face Well-Deserved Criticism for “Heartless” Group Terminations Online   

6/5/2020 – – It was inevitable that the coronavirus crisis would force businesses of all sizes to trim workforces. What didn’t have to happen, however, is the breathtaking insensitivity with which some companies have notified employees of their terminations.

With so many employees working offsite during the pandemic, the HR communications weapon of choice has been Zoom. The online meeting platform has been deployed to execute mass worker layoffs at such companies as electronic scooter manufacturer Bird (400 terminated in a two-minute Zoom meeting) and Uber (3,700 jettisoned online).

The harshest criticism has been directed at WW, the company known for the first half-century of its existence as Weight Watchers. On May 14, an estimated 4,000 WW employees learned they no longer had jobs during five-minute group Zoom meetings. Terminated WW employee Joanne Patten shared her experience with The New York Times: “This is supposed to be a caring, wellness corporation,” said Ms. Patten, who said she would have preferred to be let go in a one-on-one conversation with her boss. “The way they did it, it was just heartless.”

Reinforcing the company’s “heartless” action, WW’s Chief Financial Officer Nicholas Hotchkin explained, “It wasn’t practical to have all of the conversations be one on one.”

Why is WW being singled out? It has a lot to do with the company’s 2018 rebranding. Adopted with the name change from Weight Watchers to WW was the marketing/positioning slogan “Wellness that Works.” Board member and part owner Oprah Winfrey has been featured in marketing programs to articulate WW’s broadened focus on general “wellness.” Last month’s insensitivity with members of its own corporate family calls into question the seriousness of WW’s laudable new purpose and the sincerity of its spokeswoman. 

Employment terminations under any circumstances are emotional events for the individuals losing their jobs, as well as the company, families and communities involved. In addition to the inevitable human suffering, serious reputational damage can be done to organizations failing to execute these actions with empathy, clarity and care. Fallout can be particularly severe when a company’s actions are inconsistent with its stated purpose. 

In Chapter 18 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Dealing with Leadership Transitions”), I recommend three principles employers should follow to achieve the best outcome when dealing with terminations:

DIGNITY – There are few human needs more important than dignity. Strip someone of his or her dignity and you heighten the chances of litigation and send a very negative message to your surviving employees as well as your customers. Make every effort to treat people with as much respect as possible when you are sending them into unemployment. The whole world is watching.

DOLLARS – Losing a job is a jolting emotional and financial event. Providing no safety net creates a very unpredictable, desperate person. No company has an unending responsibility to pay former employees. But my experience is that a reasonable amount of money paid at separation goes a long way toward making things go smoothly, keeping things out of court and avoiding a crisis-triggering event. WW has not shared the specifics of any severance programs for the employees terminated online.

DESTINY – It is important to get everybody moving forward, looking ahead. You want a parting employee’s focus to be on his or her future. Providing such services as outplacement counseling is a good way to help individuals get about the business of finding a new job. It is unclear if WW is providing any of this support.

As our economy recovers from the economic carnage of the coronavirus shutdown, consumers will remember how companies behaved under pressure. How an organization treats its own employees in hard times tells you more about its heart than any mission statement or marketing campaign. WW has some reputational repair to do before its “Wellness that Works” promise will be taken seriously.    


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