4 rules for firing employees (without being a totally awful person)

December 15, 2021, 5:26 PM UTC

Is there a good way to do layoffs? There are definitely bad ways, as Vishal Garg, the CEO of mortgage company Better.com reminded us last week. He abruptly fired about 900 employees on a video livestream, after telling them how hard this was for him.

“This is the second time in my career that I’m doing this, and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it I cried,” he said.

When employees and ex-staffers later vented their concerns on an anonymous app, called Blind, Garg chimed in there, too. He blamed workers for getting laid off, because they weren’t working enough, as Fortune first reported. He later apologized, but the damage was done. By Friday, the company announced Garg was taking some time away.

One of the “worst firings ever,” wrote Mark Gongloff at Bloomberg. He includes in the pantheon: Patch.com firing employees on a conference call in 2014 and RadioShack laying off workers in a mass email in 2006.

Surely there are better ways to do layoffs than en masse quick fires over Zoom or email or speakerphone. Right? I set out last week trying to find out. I talked to a current Better.com employee and a handful of folks who’ve experienced a recent layoff. We discussed the topic on a recent episode of Slate Money, a podcast I cohost. And I reflected on my own layoff experience by answering a questionnaire created by my former colleague Hillary Frey, who is researching best practices in this realm as part of her studies in the Executive Program at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School.

After all this, I haven’t figured out a magic nice way to do layoffs. But a few broader dos and don’ts cropped up. Some of these should be obvious, like, don’t fire someone right before the holidays! Apparently, people need reminders.

“At the end of the day, there is no way to fire someone compassionately,” Robert Chmielewski, co-founder and CEO of digital real estate leasing platform ShareSpace told Fortune. That’s not quite right.

I heard from a few people who felt like they were fired in a way that was fair and reasonable. A lawyer who was laid off from a firm that was struggling financially years ago said he holds no grudges. The firm knew his wife was expecting a baby and gave him extra pay, he said. He still feels grateful. Another woman sent me a glowing note about her former boss, who had laid her off.

Certainly there are ways to conduct layoffs better than Garg, who came off looking like a jerk—and lost his job, too.

Here are four simple rules for doing firings without being a totally awful person:

1. Don’t make this about you. Garg made the classic blunder of talking about his own feelings. But what mattered were other people’s feelings, the people getting fired. “Never make it about yourself,” explained my cohost Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a longtime manager.

2. But do make it personal. Garg didn’t need to fire 900 people himself. Managers inside the company could’ve taken a more personal route and delivered the news either one-on-one or in groups. They could’ve made time for direct reports to ask questions, and say good-bye. Instead workers were terminated effective immediately.

3. Don’t insult the people you laid off. The most compassionate thing to do is to tell employees this has nothing to do with performance, one expert told Fortune.

4. Don’t fire people during the holidays. Again, I can’t believe this needs to be said. On Twitter, a follower shared that her employer has a policy of no layoffs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

5. Do be generous. If you can provide a comfortable severance and pay for health benefits for a few months, do that! A few folks on Twitter noted that generous severance benefits greatly reduced their anxiety, resentment and fear.

And look, this isn’t just about doing the right thing. This is about holding on to the employees who are sticking around—and keeping your firm’s reputation intact.

There is nothing more demoralizing than seeing your colleagues—many might be friends—get abruptly fired. The sight of their empty desks. Their Slack names vanished. Not only are you sad for them, but of course you’re wondering: am I next? If you’re smart: You immediately start looking for a new job—especially if your company spectacularly blundered the process.

Morale is completely shot at Better.com, one manager told me over the weekend. Colleagues were blindsided by the firings. She had no idea that people she supervised were laid off, until after the fact.

There’s not a whole lot of trust left at the organization. Folks are looking for an exit. She’s been interviewing elsewhere, she said. “Psychological safety is thrown out the window.”

A final note, dear readers: This will be the last Worksheet newsletter. You can keep up with Fortune’s careers coverage by signing up for My Favorites, a tool that sends you a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you. You can select from more than 50 topics, including careers, diversity and inclusion, and leadership. If you would still like to follow my work, you can follow me on Twitter @EmilyRPeck or find me on LinkedIn. I’ve so enjoyed popping up in your inbox each week to discuss work, a topic that I’m hugely passionate about. Happy holidays to you all!


One story, one quote, one number

  • You’re Going to Work a Long Time. Here’s How to Build in Breaks (New York Times): Ron Lieber always offers great financial advice; here’s some for those of you dreaming of quitting.
  • “I was only stealing so I could win.”–Siobhan “Shiv” Roy, played by Sarah Snook, on the season finale of the HBO series Succession.
  • 140–Number of people infected with COVID-10 after an office holiday party in Oslo, according to sciencenorway.no. (None were hospitalized; all vaccinated.) Still, maybe stick to Zoom again this year?

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