There’s never a good way to fire someone. But there are terrible ways, apparently, if you go by how several companies are doing it in droves lately. Taking the cake, of course, is social media platform Twitter that was recently acquired by the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Twitter’s employees found out if they still had a job based on whether they were able to access their systems; an email from the company on the official email meant you still had a job and if the same reached you on your personal email, it was time to pack up!
Last December, Indian-origin CEO of mortgage company Better.com, Vishal Garg, fired 900 employees over a Zoom call. The video of him in the act—that went viral on social media—had him saying: “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.” Ohio-based social marketing start-up HyperSocial’s CEO Braden Wallake posted a selfie of himself crying on LinkedIn in August after firing his employees. “Days like today, I wish I was a business owner that was only money-driven and didn’t care about who he hurt along the way. But I’m not,” he posted, immediately facing a barrage of criticism.
Closer home, a Chennai-based start-up reportedly laid off 10 per cent of its staff on a 15-minute Zoom call on November 2. According to an employee who was impacted, an email followed within 15 minutes, access to systems were revoked in less than an hour, a hurried exit interview was conducted soon after and by the day’s end, the person was told not to come to office anymore.
“They [the company] don’t realise that by hiring someone they are offering hope. But [when firing] they told me that my role was no more important. To hear that was the shock of my life,” says the 30-year-old former employee who wishes to remain anonymous. “Where is the empathy?” the person asks, adding that they were not even allowed to access their payslips for the next three-four days. The start-up, where the employee joined only six months ago, has put them on gardening leave for two months and is helping them find other opportunities. “No amount of financial compensation or support will make up for the emotional turmoil.”
In India, more than 15,000 start-up employees have been laid off till November this year, as per estimates. While several tech firms have also fired Indian employees, the exact number is not known. Hardeep Singh, Country Manager of outplacement services firm Right Management, says the actual number may be in multiples of what is publicly known because many companies are doing it discreetly through services such as theirs. “The layoffs are across large tech-product companies, IT, ITeS and start-ups. Layoffs in edtech are much higher than what we saw six months ago. Pharma and healthcare firms are also seeing layoffs as a function of mergers. All kinds of roles are affected. There is no functional or skillset-level demarcation,” he explains.
As layoffs become more common, hiring slows and the power shifts back to the employers, less-appealing aspects of corporate culture are coming to the fore. Seasoned HR professional Prabir Jha says Indian firms adopting an overly calculative approach towards layoffs is leading to impulsive decisions and insensitive execution, especially when social security is scarce and labour laws are not very favourable to white-collar employees. “A quarter-on-quarter saving of a few pennies through the silver bullet of headcount reduction seems the easiest thing to do. But companies may then pay a higher price and cost for talent in the future.” Companies have to communicate and listen better, plan for better severance and medical support, says the Founder & CEO of Prabir Jha People Advisory.
Contractually, the employer is not obligated to do anything more than abide by the laws. But mature organisations are willing to handhold the exiting employee through the emotional and practical journey for a fixed duration, usually determined by their seniority, says Right Management’s Singh. “For CXOs, it could go on for 12-18 months, while a 45-to-60-day programme is the norm for juniors. Most people land a job within six to nine months.” He says much of the work they do goes into helping the employee process the grief of job loss, much like the grief of getting out of a relationship. “A job is indeed a relationship, and for many in India, where work is the main identity, it is the primary relationship.”
But a lot of organisations are sensitive about their brand reputation, especially in the age of social media where outbursts can spell ruin, experts say. Jha says that external expressions of discontent would be less severe if companies were truly more empathetic. Right Management’s Singh says human interactions are a must in firing. “If the emotional outburst happens in a face-to-face conversation, there’s a much lesser chance that I will have the energy to go on social media to blast my organisation because I have already done it once.”
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