Furloughs & Virtual Layoffs: Best Practices During the Coronavirus Crisis

Man sitting at desk, after receiving news of his furlough virtually, due to stay home orders during coronavirus.

Posted on

April 8, 2020


Key Points

  • The way employers conduct layoffs and furloughs during this pandemic will define their brand perception for years to come.
  • Strategic, smart use of virtual tools that offer secure and reliable video conferencing capabilities can allow HR leaders to conduct layoff meetings with respect and compassion. 
  • Conducting furloughs and virtual layoffs present many new considerations—such as who to invite to the web meeting, how to ensure privacy, and which benefits and provisions to extend given the unique circumstances—to add to a regular notification meeting that are best to plan for far in advance of the call.    
  • Employers can make strategic use of new government benefits, health coverage deadlines, and virtual outplacement services to support impacted employees.

In just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed where, when, how, and with whom we work. It’s also radically changing how our employment ends. Gone are the face-to-face layoff termination meetings and the person-to-person handoffs of final checks. Now, companies are forced to conduct furloughs and reductions in force using only virtual tools.

Not all companies are handling this shift well. Some, in fact, have opted to conduct mass layoffs via Zoom video conferencing—a practice many employees have found confusing, chaotic, and dehumanizing. Protocol reported on how late joiners to one such call “were confused about what was happening and whether they’d just lost their jobs.” Muting employee videos didn’t help: “Workers surreally watched as everyone realized what was happening and began processing in their separate Zoom squares, some soundlessly crying.”

Whether in person or virtual, layoffs should be conducted in a manner that is compassionate and respectful toward the employee. As Yair Riemer, Intoo’s president of career transition services, recently told Business Insider, a mishandled layoff can affect a company’s brand reputation—and with it, the ability to recruit and retain talent—for years to come. 

Intoo’s outplacement expert Caroline Vernon agrees. “Companies still need to be very mindful that when the economy starts to normalize, these employees are going to remember how they were treated,” she said. “I’ve had some HR professionals ask me questions like, ‘Do you think it’s okay if our CEO sends out an email and the list of recipients are the ones that are impacted?’ No, that’s not okay.”

Many of the best practices for laying off an employee in person apply to letting go of an employee remotely, but keeping in mind a few additional details specific to the digital age can help make this difficult experience a kinder and more dignified one for the affected employees.

Schedule individual termination meetings whenever possible. 

Even in situations where many employees are being laid off, news should be delivered to each employee personally if at all possible. This helps demonstrate that, despite the difficult circumstances that led to the layoff decision, the employee is still valued and respected. 

Of course, this recommendation should be balanced against the size of the layoff and the number of employees available to manage it. “The one problem with doing individual meetings is that there’s a drip, drip effect, with people within the organization realizing that you’re starting to do layoffs,” said Debora Roland, Intoo’s vice president of human resources. “If it takes you five days to go through your layoffs, then there’s that horrible tension in the organization about who’s next, what’s going to happen today.”

To avoid extended layoffs while still allowing for individual meetings, Caroline recommends training managers and additional HR personnel, so multiple meetings can be held simultaneously. “Mass layoffs doesn’t mean herd them out like cattle,” she said. “If your organization is big enough to do a mass layoff, your organization is big enough to assign several HR people to the task of doing one-on-one layoffs.”

Take precautions to keep the virtual meetings private.

Some of the factors that make tech tools simple and convenient to use can work against HR leaders when conducting layoffs. “Be cognizant that sending a calendar invite to an employee for a 20-minute discussion with a manager and HR representative is not very subtle,” advises David Ulevitch, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. He suggests sending separate invites to the involved parties, configuring the meetings as private calendar items, and setting separate meetings for each layoff conversation instead of using a continuous Zoom or WebEx meeting room.

Include the hiring manager and an HR professional in the meeting.

An HR representative, the employee’s hiring manager, and, if appropriate, the department head are the best people to include in the layoff conversation, according to Debora. The manager is usually the familiar face who knows the employee the best and can deliver the news, later dropping off the call to let the HR person take over. “HR can be that objective third party that people can talk to if, for example, they are mad at their manager or feel they’ve been treated unfairly,” Debora said.  

Be mindful online meetings can be recorded. 

Because participants can easily record video calls through either their web conferencing provider or a screen capture program, it is especially important to pay attention to the words and tone you use as you deliver the news of the layoff. “What you say and how you say it are really important,” Caroline said, “so you don’t inadvertently open yourself up to litigation when you’re doing a termination or layoff.” 

Debora recommends using a layoff termination script to avoid unclear or ambiguous phrasing and to make sure all necessary points are covered. “Make sure you choreograph the conversation prior to the event,” she said. “Don’t let it just be willy nilly, like it’s any other phone call, because it’s not. This is about people’s lives, their families. It’s about current events, which are really scary. Having a plan and making sure you work that plan with whoever’s involved is very important so you can be really sensitive, making sure that you let people keep their dignity in the process.”

Intoo offers a sample layoff notification script, as well as a compassionate offboarding webinar that covers what to—and what not to—say during a layoff meeting.

Give full attention, as well as time and space, to the employee. 

The online medium can make it especially easy for meeting participants to get distracted. Bearing this in mind, turn your video on so you can see each others’ faces, and make sure to turn off any notifications or alerts on your device that may take your attention away from the conversation on hand. 

“Turn off your phone,” Debora said. “Make sure that you put the dogs away, that the dishwasher isn’t going off, that the UPS person isn’t at the door. And make sure nobody else is in your physical space, so it’s a private conversation.”

During your conversation, you can ask guiding questions to check for comprehension of key details. Pay especially close attention to the affected employee’s words and emotional cues. 

“Allow them space to speak and ask questions, but not to argue,” Debora said. “That’s always a balance, but in the case of a virtual offboarding, it’s even more so important to allow them freedom to vent and to feel their feelings. Though you can see each other on Zoom, because it’s through screens, there’s a sense of coldness. So I think it’s even more important to communicate effectively, to allow more time for that venting session, while managing it appropriately.”

Be consistent with your severance policy. 

Whether your organization already has a severance policy in place, or you’ve had to quickly create one due to the current pandemic, make sure to stick to its terms. Not only will this help reduce the potential for lawsuits, it will also keep you, the HR professional, from having to renegotiate the terms of severance with each individual employee. For more details on how to create a severance policy and put together severance packages, download The Complete Guide to Severance Packages.

Provide current, specific information on unemployment benefits. 

Every state has different rules about unemployment benefits, as well as different guidelines for accessing those benefits. In addition, the coronavirus crisis has prompted lawmakers to release new rules around unemployment benefits that allow more affected people to receive benefits for a longer period of time. In your layoff meetings, communicate up-to-date information to your workers so they know what to expect and get the maximum benefit they are entitled to.

Caroline recommends making the process as simple for your affected employees as possible by providing instructions and tutorials for applying for benefits in the affected employee’s state. “One of the biggest questions people ask is about how to file for unemployment,” she said. “Many don’t know that they can do it online, or they don’t know that they have to do it online because unemployment offices aren’t open right now. Some of the biggest struggles are for those people who aren’t as adept at working on a computer, because their jobs don’t require them to. Any time that an HR manager takes that extra step to explain to the person how they go online and apply for unemployment benefits in their state, I think that takes the compassion just one step further.”

Pay for continued health coverage, if possible

Especially during a virus pandemic, continued health care coverage is vital to many employees. Because most employee health benefits plans end at the last day of the month, David recommends making the official last day of employment for affected employees the first of the month if you can. “That gives every impacted employee 30 days to figure out COBRA or get added to a partner’s health plan.” If the last day of employment is unavoidably near the end of the month, try to cover one additional month of health care for the employee if possible, advises Debora.

Offer virtual, longer-term outplacement services. 

Companies who care about their employees and their employer brand provide outplacement, a benefit given by a company to exiting employees to assist them with finding new work faster. In a time of high unemployment, outplacement help is critical for laid-off employees.

Outplacement services generally include career coaching, resume review, and other tools to help with a job search. “When people get terminated or laid off, they’re busy looking in the rearview mirror,” Debora said. “What outplacement does is allow them to look into the future, to focus on that next job.” 

In the age of the coronavirus, it’s important to make sure the services provided are available in a convenient virtual platform. Unlimited, on-demand career coaching available by video, audio, or text when and where the employee needs it can make a dramatic difference in the success of the outplacement program.

“The services also need to be more long term in this market,” Caroline said. “It needs to last six months or more. A 30-day program, or a program that limits you to 30 minutes or an hour of coaching, won’t do much for the employee. With today’s unemployment rates, people are going to absolutely need the extra time.”

Remind affected employees about EAP.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which come as a package deal with many employer health care programs, offer a wide variety of complimentary services, ranging from mental health support to legal help. While many employees are told about EAP at the time of hire, many don’t have a need for it most of the time— and forget to use it when it could be helpful.  A layoff is exactly the type of situation when employees might find EAP valuable. 

Have all important information and materials ready at the time of the meeting.

Start your layoff meeting prepared with everything you will need for the event, as well as everything the affected employee will need to make a smooth departure. Items you’ll want to have ready, in electronic format, include:

  • employee separation agreement
  • COBRA notice 
  • notices about other insurance or benefits, including supplemental insurance, life insurance, Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), and Dependent Care Assistance Programs (DCAP), if applicable
  • retirement plan options, if applicable
  • severance package and severance check (via direct deposit), if applicable
  • final paycheck (via direct deposit notice)
  • information about unemployment benefits
  • information about outplacement services

You can send these materials to the employee electronically during or directly after the meeting. 

Be flexible about work equipment. 

While an in-office employee might be expected to turn in their laptop, keycards, and other employer-owned equipment on the day of the layoff meeting, these socially-distanced times require more flexibility. Try not to impose strict deadlines for when laid-off employees must ship back their equipment at a time when many are fearful of getting exposed to a deadly virus by stepping outside the home. 

Your organization might even consider allowing terminated employees to continue using their work computers after the layoff. “For many employees, this may be their only computer and would be useful in conducting their job search,” David said. “Remember that with every decision you make in this process you need to err on the side of doing whatever you can to help the impacted employee. That likely means letting them still use their laptop.”

Stay in touch with furloughed employees. 

Keep clear and open communication channels with employees who have been furloughed. “If they’re not communicated to on a regular basis, furloughed employees can lose hope and interest in that organization,” Caroline said. “Communication with those employees still needs to be very consistent to show that you intend on bringing them back. Otherwise, you risk having a very disengaged employee when this all settles down.”

Debora recommends checking in with employees who have been laid off too, so long as they are open to it. “These are really tough times for people, so really HR should be touching base periodically to see how these folks are doing if appropriate. After all, the layoffs were a business decision, and you still care about them as a person and want to help them any way you can. Most HR people are very well networked, and whether it’s tapping into your own network or just giving some advice, I think just that human touch is important.”

In the end, the overall rules for conducting layoffs are the same, whether it’s in person or done virtually: Treat people with compassion and dignity by communicating honestly, giving each person individual attention, and providing support for their career transition. Bearing these best practices in mind will help the employee, the organization, and you as the HR practitioner effectively manage difficult workforce shifts during this unprecedented pandemic.

The views expressed within this publication are those of the individual authors writing in their individual capacities only—not those of their respective employers. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this site are hereby expressly disclaimed. The content on this posting is provided “as is” and no representations are made that the content is error-free.

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