Virtually every business has been impacted negatively by the pandemic, forced closures, protests, shelter at home orders and curfews akin to living in a war zone. Inevitably, leaders of every organization – businesses, non-profits, and government entities – have been forced to make tough choices about whether to reduce hours, furlough employees or terminate people without expected rehire. In making these choices, organizations face financial constraint due to reduced income and dwindling loan or grant funds. Difficult decisions must be made that affect whether the institution will survive the current situation and have a chance to rebuild.
The stress resulting from these daily challenges continues to mount for employers and employees alike as the pandemic is spiking again in much of the country and reopening efforts are costly and confusing. Many employers cannot afford to keep people on payroll; there just is not enough money coming in. However, how we treat people when we are forced to let them go reflects on our reputation. At a crucial time like this, we should not lose sight of our values or of the importance of treating each other with dignity and respect. For those employers who have shown consideration and concern for your team, we commend you.
Unfortunately, over the past few months, we have detected a disturbing trend by some employers who vent their frustrations against employees by essentially kicking them to the curb rather than severing them with kindness and understanding. It should be obvious that treating employees well when you are forced to reduce their hours or let them go is the right thing to do. What may not be as obvious is that taking the high ground is good business. How you treat your team will impact your ability to reopen smoothly, attract clients and customers again and maintain your standing in the community. People are posting constantly on social media about their experiences with companies and brands. How you conduct yourself towards the team that helped your business thrive is fair game for discussion. Reputation is everything, so don’t tarnish yours by failing to respect the people you depended on when business was good. The blow back could set your business even farther behind.
If those reasons are not enough to convince employers to show compassion, kicking people on the way out the door also exposes you to liability. Rather than acknowledging that business is suffering and money is tight, some employers are relieving people under the guise of bad reviews. Employees who were never given negative feedback on their performance, and often received consistently favorable reviews, are being told otherwise as they are escorted out their place of employment. Some employees are criticized for not working hard enough or being committed enough as they struggle to juggle a myriad of competing demands on the work and home front. It seems as if some employers are unable to accept that the current situation is out of their control so they need to blame something or, in these cases, someone for their misfortune. Besides the obvious mean-spiritedness of criticizing employees when they are being forced out due to pandemic-inspired conditions, the criticism that seems to come out of nowhere reeks of pretext. Some stellar employees are being told they now have “issues” or they don’t “fit in” without any valid basis. Giving employees pretextual reasons for terminating them, rather than being truthful about the current condition of your business, invites employees to assert discrimination and retaliation claims against employers.
Particularly in light of recent attention on longstanding inequity and injustice, employers should be considerate and sensitive in letting employees go and in making them feel appreciated while on the job. Unnecessary critical comments to those still employed or those receiving pink slips could get you in trouble. Think carefully before talking to working parents about lack of commitment, to middle-aged employees about not having enough energy while home schooling and doing remote work, or to frontline workers failing to comply with dress codes for wearing #BlackLivesMatter masks. These remarks invite claims of discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race and other characteristics. More importantly, our employees are not to blame for our business challenges, so don’t blame them. Don’t kick people when they are most vulnerable. Employees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect especially if you are forced to let them go for circumstances out of your, and their, control.