‘There’s no such thing as a good layoff’: Why the firing process is problematic

At the same time, dismissed employees talk increasingly on social media about how companies could have handled things differently. “I still was given zero notice,” one woman said of her situation on TikTok. “They questioned my character,” another woman complained.

Arguably, the most prominent example is Brittany C. Pietsch, who recently went viral on TikTok after sharing the phone call in which she was let go from Cloudflare, a networking and cybersecurity company. During the exchange with Cloudflare representatives, Pietsch protested the loss of her position, saying her performance met expectations and that she was surprised the news wasn’t coming directly from her manager.

All this may suggest there’s a “right” way to let an employee go, one that will result in the worker understanding the situation and accepting it willingly.

Don’t fool yourself, say most human-resource professionals and others who pay close attention to the world of work: People who lose their jobs tend to be pretty unhappy, if not downright furious, when they receive the news, no matter how carefully it’s conveyed.

“The bottom line is there’s no such thing as a good layoff,” said David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a Connecticut-based HR consulting company.

Still, like others in his field, Lewis emphasizes there are do’s and don’t’s when it comes to layoffs and firings in general — and that companies that ignore best practices for letting an employee go do so at their own peril. “There are [situations] that go really bad,” he said.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince himself acknowledged the issues with how his company handled Pietsch’s situation. In a post on X (formerly Twitter), he said the TikTok video was “painful for me to watch” and that “We try to fire perfectly. In this case, clearly we were far from perfect.”

Separately, a Cloudflare spokesperson told MarketWatch earlier this month that Pietsch’s dismissal was not part of a round of layoffs, but a case of an employee not measuring up: ““We regularly review team members’ performance and let go of those who aren’t right for our team,” the company said.

Pietsch, whose original TikTok video has received nearly 1 million views, couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

Some companies express regret

This isn’t entirely a new story. of course. Companies have often come under fire for not showing proper empathy when letting staff go. An oft-cited example was when online mortgage lender dismissed 900 employees in 2021 via Zoom
with CEO Vishal Garg telling them they were “part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.” didn’t respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment, though Garg did apologize after the layoffs went public for the impersonal nature of how he handled the matter. “I am deeply sorry and am committed to learning from this situation and doing more to be the leader that you expect me to be,” he said at the time.

Face-to-face is better than Zoom

If there’s a more humane way of telling employees they’re out of a job, most experts say it begins with the method of communication. That is, it’s ideal to make it as personal as possible to ease the sting — meaning an in-person discussion is best. Communication via video or phone is not as ideal.

“You should select the richest medium,” said Andres Lares, managing partner of the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, a company that specializes in business training.

What about an email or text? Those should be absolute last resorts, although letting people go by text is nothing new. A case in point: The now-defunct Accident Group, a British insurance firm, dismissed 2,400 workers via a text message in 2003.

Lares adds another key factor in the firing equation for employers to keep in mind — the need to keep it brief. “Delivering bad news very slowly just stretches out how painful it is,” he said.

Others point to the importance of backing up anything discussed in writing. That’s because once someone hears the news they’re out of a job, they tend to get emotional and may not pay heed to some of the key details, such as their severance pay and ability to stay on the company insurance.

Speaking of which, attorneys who work in employment law say companies don’t necessarily owe a dismissed employee any severance, especially if it’s not spelled out in an employment contract. In fact, there’s very little that employers have to provide to an employee they let go, including an explanation for why they’re being let go.

“There’s no legal requirement to tell them,” said Laura Reathaford, a California attorney with Lathrop GPM who specializes in employment litigation.

If anything, the more an employer reveals to an employee, the more trouble it can lead to in terms of something that might open the door to a lawsuit, explained David Siegel, a New York attorney with Grellas Shah LLP who works on a variety of cases.

“You want to leave them without crumbs,” Siegel said.

But again, even if an employer does provide reasoned and sound explanations and even if they offer a generous severance package, there’s still no gilding the proverbial lily, experts say.

It’s simply human nature: We often define our self-worth in terms of our jobs. And we often build some of our deepest personal connections, from lifelong friends to future spouses, through our work.

To lose all that is to lose, well, quite a lot. To say nothing of a steady paycheck.

Or so says Dr. Karen McLean, chair of the social-work department at West Connecticut State University. “There’s a sense of anger and you can’t avoid that,” she said, referring to the process of being fired.

McLean speaks not just in terms of the theoretical, but also from personal experience. She lost a government position in social work two decades ago and says it still stings. She can recall how badly the situation was handled by her employer — she was kept waiting at a central office to receive the news — and how little the work she did for her clients mattered in the end.

But McLean also admits no matter how her employer let her go, the end result would have been the same.

“Either way, I would have felt angry,” she said.

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