During Zoom calls, 24 Hour Fitness, Uber, WW International (formerly known as Weight Watchers) and Bird, a scooter-rental startup, all conducted virtual firings or layoffs. And while these and many other companies have taken huge hits due to the pandemic shutting down their businesses, some have faced criticism for their lack of empathy at a time when workers also are struggling.
In late March, Bird fired 406 employees in what one worker for the startup described as an “robotic-sounding, disembodied voice” that “felt like a Black Mirror episode.” The call lasted about two minutes, according to the NPR report. “Black Mirror” is a popular dystopian science fiction series on Netflix that showcases unanticipated repercussions from new technologies.
“The unsuspecting workers were asked to log into a one-way Zoom call, after being informed that all other appointments were cancelled,” writes Jack Kelly, senior contributor for Forbes. “A disembodied voice read a script informing the person that they’ve been laid off. Their Slack and other accounts were shut off and given end dates.”
After public backlash against Bird, the company tasked its human resources department with aiding the fired workers. This included résumé reviews, interview role-playing and other efforts to help them find new jobs, Kerry Fischer, vice president of global human resources, tells The Washington Post. The firm also brought back some workers it had earlier let go.
Having face-to-face meetings is tough as people worldwide are being urged to practice social distancing or required to stay home from work. But, Kelly writes in Forbes that meeting in person should happen with proper care. “At the very least, instead of mass firings, companies could allocate the time to fully express courtesy and respect to their people by speaking with everyone individually,” he writes.
Employers should strive for transparency and empathy, and allow for enough time to listen to their employees' concerns and take questions. “The human resources professionals or managers should provide all of the necessary facts and relevant information regarding severance packages, whether or not job search assistance is offered, if there’s a chance to be rehired and other important matters,” Kelly notes.
David Ulevitch, a general partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, urges employers keep in mind the financial and psychological trauma workers will face once they are remotely laid-off. He reminds managers that their “duty as a leader is to do everything in your power to give them as many resources as you can and offer them the most dignified exit possible.”
It took a three minute Zoom call for Uber to lay off 3,500 employees in May, representing about 14% of the company’s work force, Daily Mail reports. A visibly upset Ruffin Chaveleau, who heads Uber’s customer service office, told the employees that it would be their last day on the job and acknowledged that “no one wants to be on a call like this.”
“With everyone remote and a change of this magnitude, we had to do this in a way that allowed us to tell you as quickly as possible so that you did not hear it from the rumor mill,” she says. “I also wanted to deliver this news personally and just take a brief moment to thank you for your contributions to Uber.”
An Uber spokesperson acknowledged the difficult task of laying off so many people and that they had “focused on providing the clearest, most empathetic experience, possible and have put together a strong severance package and other benefits.” Uber also launched a website to help independent contractors find new jobs, including directing drivers to rivals such as Amazon, The Washington Post reports.
WW International’s response to the pandemic was to offer its 30,000 weekly workshops virtually just a few days after having to close its 3,000 brick and mortar locations, CEO Mindy Grossman told USA Today in early April. But, the next month, Joanne Pattern, a part-time employee with the company for nearly 11 years, said she and other workers on a Zoom call listened as their boss read from a script and told them they were fired, The New York Times reports. The terminations became effective after the three-minute call ended.
“I was like, what just happened?” Patten, 59, says. “I put a call into my territory manager and said: ‘What was that? Are you kidding me? That’s how you’re going to fire me after all of these years?’”
The company under Grossman and its high profile celebrity investor and board member, Oprah Winfrey, in recent years shifted from a focus on weight loss and to one on holistic wellness. The change from Weight Watchers to WW International in 2018 embraced its new “Wellness That Works,” slogan. “This is supposed to be a caring, wellness corporation,” Patten said, noting she would have preferred a face-to-face talk with her manager. “The way they did it, it was just heartless.”
The company had employed more than 17,000 as of end-2019, with most being part-timers, but would not say how many were fired. “It wasn’t practical to have all of the conversations be one on one,” says Nick Hotchkin, the chief financial officer for the company. Employees were encouraged to touch base with their managers to follow-up after the Zoom calls, he notes.
WW International said in late April that it planned to slash costs by $100 million due to the pandemic. The employee firings and likely permanent shutdowns of some locations are included in the cuts, Hotchkin says.
Airbnb, whose business model relies on people taking vacations, was hit especially hard, The Washington Post reports. CEO Brian Chesky announced in early May that the company would need to lay off 25% of its workforce, or 1,900. But, in a 1,694 word message to employees on the firm’s blog, Chesky talked about an “alumni talent directory.” The idea is for the directory to hold employees’ profiles, résumés and work samples, to help them find new jobs.