Home Opinion/Commentary Bell attracts ire over virtual terminations, but the medium doesn’t matter – it’s the way they’re handled that counts

Bell attracts ire over virtual terminations, but the medium doesn’t matter – it’s the way they’re handled that counts

by Todd Humber

Bell has attracted the ire of Unifor for the way it handled some mass terminations on March 20. The union said that “hundreds” of its members were terminated via virtual group meetings.

“In one short 10-minute virtual meeting held this morning, a Bell Human Resources and Labour Relations manager, read a notice, without allowing members or the union the opportunity to unmute to ask questions,” Unifor said in a press release.

Virtual terminations are controversial. Many critics, particularly on the employee side of the fence, have called them out for being an inhumane or cowardly way to end an employment relationship.

Termination meetings can go viral

Some workers have taken to recording the calls themselves, including Cloudflare’s Brittany Pietsch who shared her termination video on TikTok — it has attracted 2.4 million views, nearly 120,000 likes, and almost uniform criticism for the way the people who handled her firing behaved.

Unifor, in the case of Bell, was particularly incensed about the inability of its reps or workers to ask questions during the meetings. According to the union, the company modified its approach in response — and will allow union reps to unmute and ask questions during upcoming terminations.

Bell announced last month that it was eliminating 4,800 jobs, including those of 800 unionized workers in telco and media, according to Unifor.

And while virtual terminations can seem callous, they are natural byproduct of working in a hybrid world. It’s a case of live by the sword, die by the sword — workers who are conducting fully remote or hybrid work shouldn’t be shocked that their positions can be eliminated via a Zoom call.

Bell has disputed some of the facts in the Unifor press release.

“Employees who were informed that they were being let go additionally had individual meetings with an HR representative to discuss their individual packages and to ask questions,” the company said in a statement.

“They also have the option to invite a union representative to the meeting. Bell is offering departing surplus employees fair and competitive severance packages, including providing non-working notice and salary continuance as negotiated with the union. Most of the employees are remote workers as enshrined in their collective bargaining agreement, and therefore all of these discussions are being handled remotely so that they are not called into an office.”

A hard task regardless of the setting

Let’s be honest: Anyone who has had to let a worker go, whether for cause or because of a downsizing, loses sleep over it. Unless you’re a sociopath, firing somebody is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do as a manager.

The setting, whether it happens via Zoom or in a boardroom, doesn’t dull that pain for either party. All of the ugly sides of terminations will rear their heads — including the emotional weight the manager carries in the days and, often, weeks leading up to the meeting.

Nor does being face-to-face in a room with the employee change the person’s reaction, which can range from shock to sadness to anger to denial, or any combination thereof.

Easing the pain

While there’s no sugarcoating a termination meeting, there are steps managers and HR can take to dull the pain somewhat. The first is to prepare thoroughly.

Write a script, and stick to it. You’re not there to engage in a debate over the merits of the decision — but you also should be honest. If it’s performance-based, say so. If it’s a downsizing or direction change, spell that out as well. Respectful and straightforward answers are always best, but never go off script.

Conduct the meeting in private. If doing it in person, choose a time when there are fewer colleagues around to give the person privacy and time to collect their belongings without having to face workers who, in many instances, are also friends.

Be empathetic and compassionate. I once saw a manager laugh with nervousness during a termination meeting, which only escalated the situation. It wasn’t a purposeful move, but the employee took it as a sign of callousness. Never give the employee false hope that things might change — by the time the meeting happens, the decision is final.

Perhaps most importantly, have a plan to address the team post-termination. The rumour mill runs rampant in the wake of terminations. Reassure them, address any changes to workloads or structure immediately, and avoid engaging in any gossip. It’s no one business as to why the person was let go.

The lesson here is that the medium doesn’t matter: Terminations, to use a technical term, suck. The technology is irrelevant — it’s the way it is handled that counts.

As policies and practices change in a remote and hybrid world, it’s crucial for HR and organizations to continually reassess and refine their termination practices. They need to be fair, transparent, and empathetic regardless of whether the conversation happens in an office or over a video call.

Todd Humber is the founder of North Wall Media, a firm specializing in workplace journalism. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.NorthWallMedia.com for more information.

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