How to handle terminations and other sensitive HR issues virtually

As many workplaces become increasingly remote (all or in part), the question of what should and should not be handled virtually is a common one. Traditionally, very sensitive HR issues – such as difficult performance discussions and terminations – would always be handled in person. With more remote presence becoming the norm, should that still be the case?

Employment standard legislation does not require terminations to be handled in person. However, in the past, as noted by Whitten & Lublin Employment Lawyers, not doing so in person could lead to claims that an employer carried the termination out “in bad faith”. Although many HR professionals still believe strongly that sensitive issues should always be handled in person, circumstances have certainly evolved over the years. Accordingly, we have increasingly been hearing the question of how best to handle sensitive employee issues.

Illustrating the question of a virtual versus in-person termination

An organization has employees in three different provinces, with their head office located in BC. Following a decision to dismiss an employee in Ontario, the manager unexpectedly had to take an extended leave. As the dismissal couldn’t wait, the most appropriate person to carry out the dismissal in the manager’s absence was the manager’s manager (a VP based in BC). The employee worked from home almost exclusively, with the exception of all-team meetings and the occasional training or other team event. Although the VP was more than prepared to fly to Ontario to carry out the meeting in person, we walked through the scenario from the employee’s perspective: being called into the office unexpectedly to meet with their boss’s boss; the uncertainty and anxiety that alone would create (or alternatively, not knowing why they were going into the office); potentially having a long commute, paying for parking, or having to take transit; the experience of the meeting itself with someone they don’t have a rapport with; the discomfort and potential humiliation of having to face fellow colleagues following the meeting (particularly if emotional); turning around and going back home less than half an hour later; the overall awkwardness of timing.  

Ultimately the issue isn’t about whether terminations and other sensitive proceedings are done virtually or in person. It comes down to the impact on the employee. Particularly where terminations are concerned, it’s critical to consider the most compassionate, respectful, and professional approach. How would you feel if you normally or often worked remotely but were called into the office for a 15- to 30-minute meeting only to be sent home?

What TO do when considering or planning virtual terminations

When considering and/or planning a virtual termination (or other sensitive discussion), keep the following guidelines in mind: 

  • Ask yourself and those involved how they’d want it to occur if it was you/them.
  • Consider the employee’s support network if they receive the news at home; will they be safe, particularly if they live alone and the news will be a complete surprise (ideally, it’s not)?
  • Whenever possible, carry out the meeting at a usual meeting time (ideally, earlier in the day).
  • While a witness may be present, whenever possible, be sure it’s their manager (not someone they don’t work with) who actually delivers the message.
  • If a witness (or HR, who may go over the details of the package and next steps), will be present, carefully consider when/how they’ll join the meeting (e.g., the waiting room feature in Zoom is helpful for this).
  • Be sure there are no distractions on your end, especially if you conduct the meeting from home; while it may normally be acceptable in your organization to have the occasional drop in from pets or kids (or to call in while driving), this is a circumstance when it’s not okay.
  • Be 100% sure your network connection is and will be solid throughout the meeting.
  • Ensure cameras are on and that your camera is situated so you look at the employee, not off to the side.
  • Maintain eye contact, be clear on what you’re going to say (with notes for reference) but avoid word for word reading from your notes.  
  • As with any sensitive meeting, be compassionate, respectful, and professional.
  • Allow silence and time for the employee to absorb the news, keeping in mind that doing so can feel more awkward virtually.  
  • Always prepare next steps in advance, and follow up with a written letter (email plus original via courier or other method).    
  • Refer to our past post on managing terminations carefully and compassionately.

What NOT to do when carrying out virtual terminations

While terminations and other sensitive discussions can be effectively and respectfully handled online, when planned carefully, there are some clear things to avoid:

  • Don’t wait until the end of the day, or the end of the week.
  • Don’t terminate right before a vacation.
  • Don’t deliver difficult news over email or text.
  • Don’t apologize or say “I know how you feel”.
  • Don’t let more than one person go in the same virtual meeting.
  • Don’t record the meeting.

Regardless of the nature of your organization, consider each incidence of termination or sensitive discussion carefully and separately. As with all things people-related, one approach rarely fits all. A recent event on HR.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can support you with sensitive HR conversations – whether done virtually or otherwise.