When firing staff, does empathy matter?

When firing staff

When firing staff, does empathy matter?

Redundancies are looming, but how we exit employees will either win hearts and minds or cause irreparable reputational damage

he wave of expected redundancies may not have materialised at the end of furlough in September 2021; however, that temporary stay of execution for UK workers is fast running out. In the face of continued supply chain disruption, rising energy costs and increased wage bills, some beleaguered companies are waiting to see whether layoffs will become necessary over the coming months. As a short-term survival strategy, redundancy may seem the obvious solution, but it is how empathetic companies are when implementing those job losses that will determine their longer-term fate. 

Ovo Energy made national headlines on Thursday January 14 ‘ announcing plans to cut a quarter of its workforce in the wake of spiralling raw energy costs. The loss of 1,700 roles out of 6,200 at the UK’s third biggest supplier of gas and electricity was first reported by Sky News. 

They are far from alone… 

Research by accountancy network Moore UK has found that one in three owner-managed businesses plan to make redundancies since the safety net of furlough has been removed ‘ adding that, on average, they are considering shedding 45% of their workforces over the next six months.

Companies do have to make job cuts sometimes ‘ it is a hard reality ‘ but how they go about it and the humanity with which they approach layoffs can have a fundamental impact on how people deal with that shocking news.

Last December, Vishal Garg, chief executive of mortgage firm Better.com made global news headlines when he fired around 900 of his staff on a single Zoom call. Citing staff performance and productivity, and market changes, he let at least 9% of the Better.com workforce go in the mass firing. In a recording viewed by CNN Business, Mr Garg said: If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.

Not surprisingly, comments on social media said it was cold, harsh and a horrible move ‘ especially in the run-up to Christmas. 

Better.com is far from the only company to have made headlines for inhumane treatment of staff in tough times. Workers at Horton Establishments Limited in Hull reportedly received a letter on Christmas Eve 2021 revealing that the company had gone into administration, and they would be out of a job within a week unless a buyer was found. The move led to sensational headlines in The Sun: ‘Britain’s worst boss’ blasted as ‘disgraceful’ after sending staff redundancy letters a DAY before Christmas. 

It poses the question: Is there a right way to fire staff when making redundancies?

Legally, the mass firing the Better.com workforce faced over in the US shouldn’t happen in the UK. Guidance from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) states that UK employers have to enter a consultation period with workers of at least 30 days or 45 days if more than 100 people are being made redundant. 

During the consultation period, the redundancy message should be carefully crafted. Workers must be eased into it ‘ given warning, being prepared for the news and explained the reasons why redundancies are necessary. UK employers must also look for alternative roles for workers. An employer really needs to show people that they have exhausted every possible alternative and allow them to leave with their dignity and respect intact. Empathy matters.

Going through a redundancy process is difficult and emotional for all parties, but get it right and you will win hearts and minds on many levels. Those employees that remain with the business will have seen leaders act with integrity. Those who are made redundant should leave with a feeling of positivity towards the company. Avoid burning bridges or gaining a reputation for dealing with staff badly.

A business may not be able to change the situation, but leaders can enforce job losses without losing their compassion in the process. 

Natalie Lewis
Natalie Lewis

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