Separating people over video calls - how to make it more professional
May 30, 2020 11:30 PM   Subscribe

I am separating a significant number of staff next week as part of downsizing at a large company. I will be doing each call individually over Zoom (given WFH/covid). I will be on video. The separated person can be video/audio (their choice). Thoughts on how to make video conference separations as professional as possible, and, to extent possible, as emotionally less stressful for the impacted staff.

To be clear - having to separate folks is the worst, but necessary, part of my job. I don’t enjoy it - but I’d rather tell my people face to face than someone they don’t know. I believe I’m an empathetic person and try and handle each separation with as much professionalism and understanding as possible. But doing this during WFH, knowing they may have spouses/kids/roommates/others in the same room or earshot is hard. And I’ve never done video separations before (of the 20-30 I’ve done before it’s all been in-person). Within the limits of what I can do (realizing separations are highly structured conversations), wondering if anyone has advice on things that will help the separated person (and also me if I’m honest).

We have a separation script which I essentially have to follow in terms of wording (we’ve already been advised to expect some impacted staff to record the video and post it to YouTube - apparently that’s a thing nowadays - so we have a very specific script including how to handle objections/questions etc). We have several thousand staff being separated - I’ll have a large number.

So really I am looking for suggestions on how to make this as professional as possible, while respecting the impacted person will be WFH and that is brutal for them given it crosses the barrier between work and home.

Some random thoughts I’m planning:

1. Have a very plain, well lit, video background (we’ve already been advised not to have any personal items in our background especially family photos etc - again because we expect some people will record the sessions and post them online).

2. Even through its work from home - have a business shirt on (no tie or jacket) - to at least give the impacted professional the curtesy of me being dressed professionally and recognizing this is a tough and important conversation.

3. Being on early to each call by 5 mins so if they join early the entire call is as quick for them as possible. My part is the first 5-10 minutes and then a HR rep will also be on to go through severance packages etc. I will be leaving at that point to give the professional privacy as their individual package is communicated and they also questions about it.

4. At the start letting them know it is going to be a difficult call and giving them time to move rooms or get a glass of water if they need it. Also asking them if they have a pen and paper in case they need to take notes.

5. Being very direct and careful in my language And not using platitudes (e.g. no “I’m sure you’ll be just fine!”, etc.)

6. Taking time after each call to freshen up and take a break - both for myself and to make sure each call is not rushed, I’m fresh, and the call is not just “the next off the queue”.

Any other thoughts?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Make sure you're not going to be interrupted, even audibly.
posted by praemunire at 12:09 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think if it felt heartless, that would bother me. Like if the person I'd known and been friendly with all that time turned into a robot to fire me. I know you're scripted, but I'd put your heart into the delivery.
posted by slidell at 1:01 AM on May 31, 2020 [6 favorites]

What are the policies around giving them a 'heads up' opportunity to make it a private call? I know that is not the norm, but, as you say, WFH.

Thing is, it sounds like the cat will be out of the bag well before you are through your calls, and there may be little to be gained by keeping to the no-notice policy. I am assuming their access to the IT network will be immediately terminated/limited, so maybe the worst that can happen is that they refuse the call?
posted by GeeEmm at 2:43 AM on May 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

The first thing I would do would be to remove any vague terminology. This is a serious conversation, and entering into with confusion, I do not think it would benefit anyone. It took me until after the fold to understand you were laying people off, and even then, it still was never completely clarified.
posted by wile e at 3:52 AM on May 31, 2020 [37 favorites]

I second the removal of vague terminology, but I also want to say, I think you should skip the video, and just do the phone. There are already ugly Zoom firing stories out there. No need to add to them.

I also don't see what you gain by doing it electronically face to face. As soon as you get into it, neither of you will want to look at the other, and saying Good-bye via Zoom is far more awkward than by phone. It's also easier to sound sincere/kind, if listeners are not also distracted by your face and background. More importantly, they can save face if they get upset, start to cry, don't want to look at you anymore.
posted by Violet Blue at 4:07 AM on May 31, 2020 [36 favorites]

Mod note: A few deleted. If you are here to complain about the term "separation," please keep in mind that a) we have members from all over the world, and b) business (and other) terminology varies from country to country. In some places, a separation is legally distinct from a termination, and a "separation certificate" is required for people to collect unemployment benefits. I'm assuming OPs colleagues here will almost certainly be very concerned indeed that this is a separation and not some other form of termination. Finally, I'll remind you that the purpose of Ask Metafilter is to help solve problems; if you aren't here to do that, refrain from commenting.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:03 AM on May 31, 2020 [14 favorites]

What you're doing is hard, and it's good that you're trying to be respectful and careful about it. Here are some quick thoughts:

-- You should definitely definitely definitely test beforehand with the HR person, to make sure you have the technical stuff 100% in hand. For example you want to make sure that when you disconnect from the call, you don't accidentally end it for everybody. That kind of thing.

-- Use the first little bit of the call to make sure they can hear you okay. Don't launch into your spiel until you're 100% sure they can hear and see you.

-- I would not do any opening chit-chat, about big things or little things. No friendly comments about whatever's in the background where they are, no questions about how they're faring in the pandemic, no commiserating about anything. Doing that kind of thing could help to make the first few minutes feel human/warm, but once they understand the purpose of the call they may feel like you tricked them or were being insincere. (And, if they tell you about e.g. some way in which they've been personally affected by COVID, it will make the rest of the call harder and worse.)

-- I would open by telling them it's an important call, and asking them if they have audio and video privacy. If they don't, ask them if they want a minute to shoo away the kids or ask their roommate to leave the room or whatever.

-- You probably already know this but in general, don't fill silences with random stuff. You need to make sure they absorb whatever important information you need to convey, so don't add filler. It's okay to have pauses while they absorb what you're telling them.

-- You probably know this too because it's not videoconference-specific, but be very careful to do nothing to make the call about you. Do not say things like "this is such a difficult day" or "I am finding this really hard." It's always surprising to me how many people in your situation can't control themselves on this simple point. It's not about you: it's about the person you're talking with.

-- If you have been close with them IMO the tone of your call should reflect that, but otherwise I think most people in this situation will just see you as an agent of the company rather than a fellow human being, and it's probably best for you to be okay with that rather than trying to upend it.

-- 5-10 minutes feels like quite a lot for your part of this. As long as you convey whatever's required, IMO it's okay if your piece is very short. Your job is to set the stage from a tone perspective, and give them the hard news that they are leaving. Beyond that, most of the information they will need and care about will come from the HR person. It's okay to explicitly say that to them, like: "Most of the important information you're going to need is going to come from X on the call with me, and so I am planning to turn you over to X now and leave the call." Then adding "is that okay with you" so they have a chance to ask you any questions that only you can answer.

-- They may have things they want to say to you as the representative of the company. If they do, you should listen. A useful thing you can say is "thank you."

-- If it's true (and allowed by your company) it would be kind to say that you/the company appreciates the work they have done, that what's happening has absolutely nothing to do with their performance, and that it wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for COVID/the economy/whatever. That is the kind of thing that people like to know, and may want to be able to tell their family/friends.

-- The last words you should say, as you're ending your part of the call, should be something like "I am really sorry about this, and I wish you all the best."

Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 6:46 AM on May 31, 2020 [13 favorites]

If there is some legally feasible way to signal that this will be a difficult call before the call even starts (say, by email) you’ll be making the call a lot easier on the recipient. It’ll give them time to prepare to be away from kids, nosy parents, etc. I had a recruiter give me some bad news in the car (company im in process for is freezing hiring for a few months) a few weeks ago unexpectedly while my nosy eavesdropping mother happened to be in the car, and that made a mildly disappointing call 100 times more stressful than it needed to be
posted by shaademaan at 7:22 AM on May 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

I would 100% rather get a call like this on the phone than Zoom. If there's any way that these can be phone calls, I think that's the much better option.
posted by pinochiette at 7:42 AM on May 31, 2020 [22 favorites]

Part of what makes zoom stressful is that you end up more aware of your own appearance than you do in person. That dynamic makes it particularly ill suited for this.

what's happening has absolutely nothing to do with their performance, and that it wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for COVID/the economy/whatever. That is the kind of thing that people like to know, and may want to be able to tell their family/friends.

This is a great point. It really helps people to be able to frame their job loss as a covid thing rather than a reflection of them personally.
posted by jeoc at 9:55 AM on May 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

If it eventually happens to me, I hope I don’t have to the BS of prepping my myself, my living/working space, then logging in for this sort of news. Nth-ing a phone call.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:55 AM on May 31, 2020 [11 favorites]

One more vote for phone only, no Zoom. I don't want to have to look anybody in the face when they are "separating" me ...
posted by mccxxiii at 2:16 PM on May 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

If it's true (and allowed by your company) it would be kind to say that you/the company appreciates the work they have done, that what's happening has absolutely nothing to do with their performance, and that it wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for COVID/the economy/whatever. That is the kind of thing that people like to know, and may want to be able to tell their family/friends.

This is HUGE. I was sacked, along with my whole group - it was a govt department, and a political decision. Never mind the family/friends, it is the future job applications and interviews where this has its major impact. In my case it was everyone, so obviously no personal performance issues behind it. If you have the ability to feed them some objective criteria used that does not infer poor performance on their part as a reason for them going (eg last on, first off), I urge you to do so.

And Nthing the phone, not video, especially if no heads up to set up private call.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:11 PM on May 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Another thing that might soften the blow is to offer to provide a reference in their future job search (assuming that their performance has been good to date)
posted by shaademaan at 4:25 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're already the sort of person who would have this in hand (merely from the fact that you've been so thoughtful already and asked the internet), but my main asks as someone who was laid off are 1) let the conversation be brief if need be. I didn't know what I needed to ask for unemployment, etc, but I sure knew I wanted to go somewhere else to process for a bit, so wanted out asap, and; 2) don't make this in any way about your own pain at having to lay people off (although obviously, it Sucks, I'm so sorry). I was seriously concerned that the older man who told me I was being laid off was going to have heart attack, he looked so rough, pale, and miserable.

It might help to take a brief break between calls, to do some deep breathing or something. Take care of yourself!
posted by ldthomps at 6:56 PM on May 31, 2020

I know video might feel more thoughtful, but a large number of people have anxiety around Zoom and other video calls that they don't have with the phone (myself included). With a Zoom call, you are asking the person to spend time on their appearance as well as potentially need to clean a part of their house, kick other people off the computer or out of a room, just to then fire them. A phone call takes up MUCH less of the person getting the call's time and energy as well as giving them a great deal more privacy. You could maybe make the announcement to people over the phone, with an offer to video chat if they feel that would be helpful to them. But I would be pissed myself, honestly, if I went to the trouble to be on a Zoom call and it turned out it was just to fire me. It would definitely not feel like the kinder option over using the phone.
posted by augustimagination at 7:35 PM on May 31, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am a manager who had to let someone go 2 weeks ago, so I had this conversation with our Head of HR then. We agreed phone calls were better than Zoom for all the reasons mentioned above. Hearing the news about separation is hard, and we felt it wasn't fair to also ask people to figure out how to comport themselves on video during that time. I feel strongly it was the right decision.

Good luck. Reductions in force are never easy, but at least the current environment makes the explanation for 'why' a little easier.
posted by widdershins at 8:15 AM on June 1, 2020

Mod note: From the OP:
Firstly, thanks for all your feedback and suggestions. They have been very thoughtful to the people who are being separated and therefore helpful to me as a result. I wanted to give some updates below because there were some topics multiple people raised that I think were really important considerations

1. On giving a "heads-up"to the people. Yes we'll be effectively giving them a heads-up email by approx 24 hours that this is happening to them specifically. Some people may still be surprised (especially if they had been on leave for the past week and missed some internal calls where this action was announced), but it should be very few. I agree this is important - its gives a little time to process and think about key questions they have.

2. On acknowledging COVID is the rationale - yes I just found out we are doing that thankfully - right upfront as well. I agree that it will help many people process this better if it's about the economic wave that is crashing around us all, not just them individually or their performance.

3. On Zoom. I wish we could do this by phone and I totally agree making someone show their face or look at me will make it harder for some. Myself and the others who are having these calls pushed for phone. The compromise is now we are telling the person upfront when they join that it will be a difficult conversation, and if they don't want to be on video they can stop their camera, and giving them time to stop their video/minimize the window if they would prefer to be "audio" only and not look at anyone else on the call. If they join audio only upfront that is ok. I'm going to try and add "Joining by video is optional" to the invites that get sent if I can.

FWIW my understanding is it easier for our HR folks to gauge that a person has understood what has been communicated if we can see them (we normally do this in-person) - we have had separation by phone before where there is no response at all when our HR team has asked questions and its hard to tell if the person has simply walked away from the phone or not. That matters because if the person doesn't respond and we can't tell if they have heard we have to start other processes to ensure they know about benefit extensions and important tasks they may need to do very quickly (anything from take copies of their tax forms to certain immigration tasks to allow them to stay in the country temporarily if they are on visas) - which may mean we have to try calling them multiple times again, texting them, sending them documents by courier, sending them emails to personal addresses, and generally bugging them till they acknowledge . All of which puts them at risk they miss out on benefits or have other issues (especially for people on visas where things can be very time sensitive an out of the company's control).

I did not see the comments that were deleted around the use of the word separation in my question, but I understand why people would react to that. The mod comment above on that was accurate. We are being *extremely* careful around language to ensure people are eligible for benefits including unemployment. Also I've been in internal meeting after meeting on this for the last two weeks and my language was heavily shaped by the (sometimes cold and academic) way we tend talk in those meetings. My apologies if anyone was offended.

It's a horrible thing to do to people under normal conditions. At this time I simply don't have the right words to describe it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:12 PM on June 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the update OP. Coming back to say that 'because Covid'' is not particularly helpful to them, unless there is something else that explicitly removes the personal performance element, such as shutting down a function, a workplace, a product line etc. A generalised RIF raises the question of why this person and not this other person - must be because one is a better worker/has more to offer than the other.

On the other hand, if that is the best you can give them, then that is the reality they will have to deal with.
posted by GeeEmm at 6:46 PM on June 2, 2020

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