Workplace culture has reached a new low with the advent of the digital pink slip. In January alone, tech companies laid off more than 100,000 workers, many of them by email or text. Or in the corporate equivalent of ghosting, people found out they were fired by being locked out of the company email system.
When Google fired 12,000 workers with a click of the send button, a terminated 20-year employee named Jeremy Joslin sent this viral tweet: “What a slap in the face. I wish I could have said goodbye to everyone face to face.” The tech industry’s high profile makes their layoffs particularly loud, scaring employees well beyond the sector. Their digital pink slips are already shocking your company’s system, leaving 89% of American workers fearing they’re going to be next.
It seems as work has gone remote, so has empathy. Layoffs are difficult. But even with the recession looming, they don’t have to be cruel. How you let people go says everything about your organization’s culture and commitment to respect, trust and fairness. Yes, it may be faster and easier to do it digitally. But it lacks basic humanity and does way more damage in the long run. In fact, it can be a cultural apocalypse, destroying trust, inclusion, productivity and innovation.
In all likelihood, more layoffs are coming. A recent KPMG survey reports that 91% of American CEOs predict a long, hard recession and 51% will respond with layoffs. But before you resort to the digital pink slip, ask yourself these three critical questions:
- What does this say about your culture?
No company sets out to be a place that treats people as dispensable. It’s unquestionably been a rollercoaster as companies fought to survive the pandemic while also acclimatizing to the conundrum of remote work. In this seismic shift, missteps are inevitable. What seemed an opportunity for companies to reinvent the future of work has been complicated by the Great Resignation and a host of other issues. What employees hoped would be a workplace renaissance with new levels of balance, flexibility and digital connectedness has largely not materialized. Instead, people are left feeling lonelier and more isolated than ever.
The digital pink slip is a symptom of this larger problem. If you’re even considering laying people off by email, it means people are no longer at the center of your culture. Now is the time to change that before it erodes any further. Culture is a muscle that builds slowly but atrophies quickly. Take the time and make the space to exercise your collaboration muscles and restore the deep workplace connections that help you work better together. Your goal should be a rock-solid culture that is so people-focused that you would never even entertain the idea of firing someone in an inhumane way.
- Are you treating people as well when you fire them as when you hire them?
Hiring is a little bit like dating. You put your best foot forward and show off your company and culture in the best possible light. In the tech world you might even shower your employees with sleep pods, bowling alleys and free Michelin-starred food. But if it all ends in a toxic break-up, you’re living a lie. The true test of a healthy workplace culture is exhibiting the norms and values that matter most – in good times, and in bad. In fact, culture matters even more in tough times. That’s when people see what’s real and what’s window dressing. That’s when you need your culture to work for you, to motivate your people and delight your customers.
Staring into Zoom all day and endless talk of technology transformation and ChatGPT sometimes makes us forget that no matter what business we’re in, companies still run on people, not machines. And people will never forget how you treat them. Say thank you. Honor their contribution. Let people have closure by saying goodbye.
Having people leave on good terms is also an investment in future employees because the next time you start dating and want to hire, you won’t be dogged by a messy breakup. This matters because 71% of candidates learn about job opportunities and company culture from current and former employees.
- Are you poisoning the well?
Survivor guilt is real. Ill-managed layoffs destroy psychological safety. If your friend in cubicle 3A wakes up to a digital pink slip with no warning and no explanation, you’re going to fear being next. And when your frontal cortex is consumed by fear it’s hard to do good work. In a recent study of 4,000 layoff survivors, 74% reported lower productivity and 69% report declining product or service quality.
When productivity plummets, so does innovation and teamwork. When your employees no longer trust you, they will hesitate before they take a risk and think twice before they speak up about a problem. If you don’t treat people with respect and kindness, you’re poisoning your own well (and risking your profits). If you think it’s time consuming to have real conversations with people to let them go, think about how much more time it will take to manage the digital pink slip fall out. Reassuring remaining employees, restoring lost tribal knowledge, rebuilding trust and repairing disrupted social networks will be far more arduous.
Fire people the old fashioned way (face-to-face or voice-to-voice, with care and humility). Just because you can use technology doesn’t mean you should. Technology is a tool that makes things faster and easier. But people are not tools or numbers or widgets. Digital pink slips are an alarming sign that we have lost sight of this. Your actions today – in one of the most stressful, awful moments a worker can experience – will reverberate in the hearts and minds of your people long after the short-term benefits of cost cutting expire.
Layoffs may be inevitable. But they can be handled in a way that doesn’t cripple your culture. Delete the digital pink slip. Choose a kinder method that demonstrates the very best of your values. Transparency, dignity, gratitude and a human-delivered message will go a long way to helping people feel respected and less devastated by these disruptive changes, whether they’re leaving or staying.
First published on Forbes.com.