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Layoffs continue in the Middle East. What’s the most humane way to fire a virtual worker

As layoffs become a regular occurrence, experts tell us what leaders need to consider before firing someone virtually.

Layoffs continue in the Middle East. What’s the most humane way to fire a virtual worker
[Source photo: Venkat Reddy/Fast Company Middle East]

Hundreds of workers from startups in the Middle East and North Africa region have been fired in the last few months, proving that the fast-growing industry is not immune to the global economic slowdown. Mobility startup Swvl, the $12 billion quick commerce startup Getir and Coinbase-backed Rain slashed their workforce. 

As economic uncertainty looms, companies are now forced to focus on profitability instead of growing as quickly as possible.

As layoffs become de rigueur, in recent times, several companies have landed in hot water for the way they conduct terminations, generating controversies and raising questions. Setting an unhealthy trend, Better.com fired 900 employees, and British shipping firm P&O Ferries fired 800 employees through a Zoom call. Klarna and The Wing are other companies that have conducted mass layoffs via Zoom in the last couple of years. In some cases, the employees were informed about the termination of their services in about three minutes.

How should companies approach firing someone virtually? Can companies conduct virtual layoffs with respect and empathy?

We reached out to experts to get their thoughts on what leaders need to consider before firing someone virtually. Here’s what they have to say:

TREAT IT LIKE A SENSITIVE CONVERSATION

Laying off in any scenario is sensitive. On Zoom, conversations about layoffs should be more respectful and done cautiously,” says Bryce Barrows, a UAE-based HR professional and career coach, as it can come across as callous because the virtual environment already feels less personal.

The lack of personalization left many feeling disrespected. If employees live in the same city or are easily accessible, the company should have face-to-face communication. But if difficult conversations take place over a video call, then all present at the meeting must ensure there are no misunderstandings, adds Barrows. “If an employee becomes emotional, give him time to recover. Do not read from a script. Even though a script may be given to the manager by HR, they need to use it as a base only.” 

When conducting a virtual termination, managers must be actively listening and giving the employee a moment after delivering the news. “Do not present the layoff conversation lightly,” says Joseph El-Khoury, Chief of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at American Hospital Dubai. “Allow the employee to set the tone that suits her best. This will vary between individuals.”

ENSURE IT’S NOT A COMPLETE SURPRISE

Before the termination, there should have been multiple conversations around performance concerns and opportunities for the individual to correct and improve their performance.  “If there was still no improvement in performance, the employee should have been kept on employee improvement plan for a specific time,” says Barrows.

When deciding to terminate, El-Khoury says that it shouldn’t be a complete surprise to the individual. “Prepare workers for such an eventuality by being transparent about the layoff process. Transparency at an early stage will ensure fewer complaints about the process itself, rather than the decision.”

Set up a meeting, not part of routine reviews, to address the employee’s expectations. “It will create some anxiety that is generally manageable ahead of the termination meeting. But spare the shock that may leave traumatic sequela,” he adds.

COMPANIES MUST CONSIDER ALL SCENARIOS

Terminating a remote employee involves preparation. HR needs to make a checklist to run smoothly.  According to Barrows, HR needs to check if local laws apply if the employee is in a different country. “HR also needs to decide who would be involved in the process. If the manager cannot deliver the news, who would be the next designated person to handle the situation? All scenarios need to be considered, including unexpected reactions and how to deal with them. Therefore, a script must be developed to maintain legalities and HR policies for reference.”

Most importantly, the company must understand that those who remain in the team will also be affected, so they should inform them to keep their morale high. “In case of numerous terminations, the whole organization needs to be informed in advance,” Barrows adds.

DON’T RUSH THE PROCESS

Letting someone go is never a pleasant experience, but companies don’t necessarily have to do it in a way that burns bridges with their former employees. Barrows believes it is “wise not to rush” the termination process. 

By rushing, the company could miss something that could lead to legal action by a former employee. Also, it’s important for companies to remember former employees as their brand ambassadors. “You want them to leave your organization singing your praise. You treat them with dignity and respect, and even though they may get terminated, they would still say that your organization was the best place they worked.”

Do not spare only a few minutes for the meeting thinking everything will go according to plan. It’s better to keep enough time to deal with questions or unexpected reactions, says El-Khoury.

END ON A GOOD NOTE

Sometimes a company needs to downsize because of the economic downturn. In such a scenario, the manager should first speak with the HR to see if there are any open positions in other departments. The employee should be considered for that position if they have transferable skills.

“It’s a win-win for both parties,” says Barrows. “The HR should look at other ways to help the employee if a company can’t do that. One way is to look for outplacement services (career coaching for laid-off employees), or if HR is aware of hiring within the industry, they should reach out to the HR of companies hiring.”

According to El-Khoury, it’s important to share the relevant wider context of the decision, even if the virtual worker is responsible for a peripheral task in the company. “Remember, this decision will have a personal impact.”

“Always end on a good note,” Barrows adds.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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