Companies embraced technology to work remotely during the pandemic — now they’re using it for layoffs

9 Min Read
Companies embraced technology to work remotely during the pandemic — now they’re using it for layoffs

It was stressful enough for Fionn Kellas to suddenly lose their retail job. But getting the news via WhatsApp message rather than in-person made it worse.

“It was an absolute shock to me,” said Kellas, recalling the hurt of being dismissed in a way that felt so abrupt and cold.

Months later, the memory of being laid off from a Toronto-area candy store is still painful for Kellas.

“I was crying.”

A file photo from March shows a WhatsApp logo on a phone screen. It’s the same messaging app a manager used to fire Fionn Kellas from a Toronto-area candy store. Stories from employers using email, Zoom and other tech tools to convey notifications of job terminations have been making headlines since the pandemic. (AFP/Getty Images)

Using technology to deliver this kind of bad news — whether via email, video calls or similar tools — is an approach some organizations embraced during the pandemic, but employees and experts say it fails to factor in the people on the receiving end of job losses.

“I think it’s another example of us really not getting our heads wrapped around the best use of technology,” said Paula Allen, a senior vice-president of research and total well-being at human resources firm LifeWorks.

WATCH | Twitter employees face layoffs over email:

Twitter employees get layoff news via email

Simon Balmain tells Reuters how he found out he was losing his job at Twitter — news that was conveyed via email.

Logging on for layoffs

Thousands of employees at tech companies Meta and Twitter recently learned of confirmation of their layoffs in emails.

This was months after hundreds of UK ferry workers were fired via Zoom calls. Workers at online car retailer Carvana learned of large job cuts in a similar manner in the spring.

In May, Carvana, an online car retailer, announced it was cutting 2,500 workers — some of whom were found out in a Zoom call. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

While such mass terminations at large firms have made headlines, it’s not just big businesses using these tools to part ways with staff.

For Kellas, the web WhatsApp-delivered news of employment loss came from the small store’s manager.

“I’ve moved on from it, but it’s still kind of a ‘What the F?’ kind of situation,” said Kellas, who noted the manager could have made the moment a little less harsh by calling instead.

But a phone call may not be that welcome in all cases either.

Kelsee Douglas learned she was losing her job at a Saskatchewan hearing clinic halfway through her workday last winter.

First came an electronic message notifying her of a surprise meeting. Then came the phone meeting, during which she was told her employment was coming to an end — immediately.

“I was really, really shocked,” said Douglas, who had been in the job for two and a half years.

Paula Allen, with human resources firm LifeWorks, says employers don’t always know the personal circumstances of workers may be facing at the time of a layoff or termination notice. (Submitted by Paula Allen)

Allen, the HR firm leader, said it’s key that organizations provide employees with support — such as counseling and career coaching — as they adjust to their new reality.

She cautioned that employers may not know the full set of personal circumstances people are facing at the time of a layoff or termination notice — nor do they know how hard employees will take the news.

“A lot of people are dealing with many issues and coming into the office every single day and this is the one straw that makes it very difficult for them to see their next step.”

A pandemic uptick

Sixteen years ago, consumer electronics retailer RadioShack notified 400 employees they were losing their jobs via email.

Back then, prominent labor leader Bruce Raynor called it an “outrageous way to treat human beings.”

But it’s seems to have become more common, especially during the pandemic.

WATCH | How it feels to lose a job you love virtually:

What it’s like to be fired over Zoom

Joanne Gallop was let go from Canopy Growth through a mass layoff of 200 employees — via the video chat platform Zoom. Illustrations by Chelle Lorenzen.

Cannabis company Canopy Growth used a Zoom announcement to lay off 200 employees back in 2020.

Just last year, 900 people at learned they were being let go during a much-criticized Zoom call.

And 700 people at Swedish payment company Klarna were told about the cuts in a recorded message in May, after which employees reportedly had to wait for an email to find out if they were affected.

Janet Candido, a Toronto-based HR consultant, said she hopes the remote termination approach “doesn’t become common place.”

She said the use of these methods seems to have expanded during the pandemic. As a greater number of people began to use these tools to work remotely, the same technology was being used to let some of them go.

Camilla Boyer, a UK-based executive communications consultant, has also contributed to increasing globalization.

“Companies with employees spread out across the world don’t have the option to gather everyone in one room or meet with them face-to-face in an office the way it may previously have been done,” said Boyer, who has helped advise firms on layoffs in the past.

“That has given rise to the increased use of technology in carrying out reductions in force,” she said in an email.

Camilla Boyer, a UK-based executive communications consultant, has increased the use of messaging technologies and globalization factors contributing to companies firing staff without a personal conversation. (Submitted by Camilla Boyer)

Room for improvement

“I think the practice has good and bad sides,” Martha Maznevski, a professor of organizational behavior at Western University in London, Ont., told CBC News via email.

Maznevski said the process was “completely dispassionate and cold” and left little goodwill among departing employees. But it may also be an efficient way to share key information, particularly in organizations that are spread out geographically.

Nadia Zaman, an employment lawyer with Rudner Law in Markham, Ont., said “employers should be cautious in carrying out dismissals via video or other similar methods.”

Aspects of these tools, she noted, may allow an employer to have discussions in a private and confidential manner.

Twitter employees are seen entering the company’s New York offices last week. New owner Elon Musk recently sent an email asking staff to click ‘yes’ if they wanted to stay. Those who didn’t respond by a certain deadline would be considered to have quit and given a severance package. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In the long term, Allen doesn’t expect these practices to go away — people will continue to be hired remotely and let go in the same way in some cases.

No matter what the circumstances, she said the consideration of the person should be at the center of the process.

“I think it’s how it’s done that needs a little bit more care.”

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