How to Handle Virtual Layoffs and Terminations

by: Kristina Kelly
August 12, 2020

hand separating puzzle pieces


As if handling layoffs wasn’t difficult enough already, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced HR professionals to navigate the uncharted waters of virtual terminations. With millions of unemployed Americans, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of large enterprises letting half their workforces go via Zoom, or furloughing individuals on awkward video conference calls. And, as long as remote work continues, virtual layoffs, terminations, and furloughs will remain an uncomfortable, yet necessary, part of HR.


Whether you are letting one or 500 people go, virtual layoffs must be conducted with compassion, professionalism, and empathy – especially during these unique and challenging times. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all method, learn how to handle virtual layoffs with these seven tips.


1.  Prepare and practice.

Before delivering the news, find your bearings. This means not only preparing all necessary paperwork, but also practicing what you will say and how you will say it. Equip yourself with talking points and rehearse them. Stick to your script, but avoid sounding monotonous – speak to your employee(s) as if you are having a conversation. There’s no getting around the discomfort of the situation, but practicing your delivery will take the edge off. Your departing employees will have questions, so anticipate their concerns so you can provide adequate answers and ease some of their initial fears.


2.  Set up a meeting.

When you can’t casually call someone into your office or address an entire conference room, how do you conduct virtual layoffs? The first step is to set up a meeting with the person or people you will be letting go. If you already have a meeting scheduled, like a weekly 1:1 check-in, it’s a good idea to use this time to hold the conversation. If you don’t already have a meeting on your calendars, set one up the same day you plan to make the announcement. This prevents employee speculation (and unnecessary anxiety) and allows you to get right to the task at hand. Ideally, virtual layoffs should be done on an individual basis whenever possible, but in these times, that may not be feasible, especially with large organizations.


3.  Get to the point.

When the conference call or video meeting begins, don’t tiptoe around the subject. Dive right into the purpose of the meeting: inform your employee or employees that their time at your company has come to an end. Provide tangible reasons for letting them go. If it’s due to poor performance, cite specific examples of where your employee did not fulfill their job duties. If your company is downsizing or having financial issues, be upfront with that information.


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4.  Convey compassion.

After you deliver the news, give your employee(s) time to respond. Listen to them. They will likely be upset and emotional, but don’t take anything personally. Ensure they understood everything you said and ask what questions they have at this time. Maintain a calm demeanor and an encouraging tone, but never make false promises. If the decision is final, emphasize that. Again, understanding that it’s going to be an uncomfortable experience beforehand will help you maintain perspective.


5.  Provide clear next steps.

One of the best pieces of layoff advice is to inform your employees of the immediate next steps. Who will reach out with any necessary paperwork and when? Will they receive a severance package? How will they return any company-owned property, such as laptops, phones, and other office equipment? When will they receive their final paycheck? Will you pay them for unused vacation time? Your former staff will have plenty of questions, so explaining precisely what to expect and when will assuage some of their initial fears.


6.  Offer helpful resources.

When handling layoffs, show compassion by providing departing employees with useful resources to help them move forward and get back on their feet. For example, offer information on how to receive unemployment benefits. You might even support them in finding new jobs through virtual outplacement services. Offering outplacement services can help ease the sting of layoffs for everyone involved, including survivors (and can protect your employer brand from any potential disparagement from former employees).  


7.  Be honest with your remaining employees.

It’s natural for your remaining employees to feel a sense of guilt when their colleagues are laid off. They may also be worried and uncertain about their own jobs. Encourage meetings between managers and their teams to explain the situation and answer any questions or concerns. Honesty and transparency are important in these discussions to keep morale up and maintain business continuity.


Above all, remember that your employees are human – treat them with compassion and support, especially during these challenging times. Virtual layoffs are uncomfortable; there is no way around it. However, you can make them go as smoothly as possible with the right blend of preparation, practice, clarity, honesty, and empathy.