Are firing employees over a Zoom call acceptable?

Are firing employees over a Zoom call acceptable?
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Employers are rethinking their staff management as more work remotely. While going virtual has improved work collaboration, a negative impact could be a decline in performance and employees feeling unfairly treated.

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In a sign of the shifting work landscape and the reality of distributed working, a survey of 200 managers at large companies from July to August found that one out of four executives have fired a staff for slipping up during a video or audio conference.

The study, commissioned by unified communications and analytics provider Vyopta, added that more than 80% have levied some sort of disciplinary action for gaffes made in virtual meetings. These actions included moving responsibility to another staff member (53%), giving an informal (40%) or formal (38%) reprimand and removing a staff from a project (33%).

In several higher-profile cases last year, US travel booking platform TripActions set up Zoom calls for around 100 staff and told them that they were all being let go. All employees were muted, so no one could ask questions or respond. Minutes later, they were locked out of their work computers and lost all access to their email.

In a three-minute Zoom call, Uber fired 3,500 employees or 14% of its workforce with the terse message: "We are eliminating 3,500 customer support roles. Your role is impacted and today will be your last working day." This action was heavily criticised.

In another case, a staff in Japan – using the pseudonym ‘Yota Yoshida’ – working in an unnamed IT firm was fired as his chin was out of frame and his knee was seen on screen when attending an online training course. He was also wearing a cardigan over his shirt, breaking a regulation that employees must wear a dress shirt for classes.

Image courtesy of SoraNews 24
Yoshida was fired as his chin was out of frame, his knee was seen on screen and he wore a cardigan which violated the dress code 

These extreme examples aside, HR practitioners that iTNews Asia spoke with on this issue agree that employees misbehaving online should be treated the same as anyone in the office.

Paul Endacott, CEO & Founder of recruitment firm GRIT, felt that if the blunder is serious enough to be fired for in a face-to-face meeting, the same must apply to meetings over video.

“Video conferences shouldn’t be seen as a novelty or a fad. It is now part of the fabric of doing business. Firing an employee over one incident should always be the last resort, or it must be deemed an action that would warrant this serious outcome.

“However, it is also the employers’ responsibility to ensure that employees are aware of this and have sessions to reinforce what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and attire when on a video conference.”

To do this properly, employers need to be trained to handle all aspects of management remotely – including training, performance management and, unfortunately, this also means terminating employees, added Endacott.

Sonali Sharma, Vice President of People Science at EngageRocket, classifies organisations as belonging to two types:  

  • The first will “know with considerable confidence and internal alignment that they made the right decision” while
  • The second will “continue to walk ethical, cultural and legal minefields not knowing if they need to be more flexible, more empathetic or better listeners.” 

She said the decision to fire an employee is always subject to employment law and sees similarities globally in the current approach to terminations, whether in person or online.

“The rules of the game have changed since COVID-19 disrupted our normal. HR policy-makers must adapt. Organisations that don’t invest in understanding the new personal and professional context of their employees, their drivers of well-being and productivity will find themselves wondering,” said Sharma.

Video conferences shouldn’t be seen as a novelty or a fad. It is now part of the fabric of doing business. Firing an employee over one incident should always be the last resort, or it must be deemed an action that would warrant this serious outcome.

However, it is also the employers’ responsibility to ensure that employees are aware of this and have sessions to reinforce what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and attire when on a video conference.

Paul Endacott, CEO & Founder of GRIT 

We’re not turning back from remote

When in-person, many offices have open-door policies and communication that are free-flowing. With remote however, this may not be the case and a worrying concern is that employees are still not fully adapted.

A lot of reports and studies iTNews Asia received in past weeks show many employees grappling with issues such as isolation, stress and burnout from juggling different responsibilities work and home.

With the number of remote employees on the rise, in-person terminations are not always feasible and more virtual layoffs seem inevitable as part of the new norm. The onus now lies on employers to do them fairly, conform to employment rules and show empathy and professionalism.

“Layoffs should always be dealt with sensitively and professionally regardless of whether this is in person or done virtually. If there is a possibility that the employee can be met in person, then they should be. This applies to any aspect of performance management, not just if an employee is being fired,” explained GRIT’s Endacott.

He said it was imperative organisations train their employees on virtual communication - to communicate to employees ‘what is acceptable and what is not’ - and how managers and HR need to adapt to the virtual work realm.

It’s how you do it that makes the difference

EngageRocket’s Sharma said disciplinary action policies must be expanded to include the impact of COVID-19, the types of misconduct and how to address them in the context of remote work.

An employee who is fully remote should expect a termination conversation to be remote, while an office worker will expect a face-face conversation.

Perhaps more important is sensitisation and training of managers and employees to make sure the process is fair, empathetic and representative of the culture norms of the organisation.

- Sonali Sharma, Vice President of People Science at EngageRocket

Sharma said that LinkedIn data reveals that the number of job applicants under the category ‘Remote work’ have sharply increased in APAC in the recent past, narrowing the demographic divide between APAC and the West.

“We may see an increase in the number of people being fired over Zoom globally given the evolving worker type (remote, hybrid, office) mix. 

“I don’t condemn remote terminations as a concept, only when they are executed poorly. The physical, social in every organisation and country is different and we can no longer hold on to past ideals.

“It will never be pleasant to terminate a work (or personal) relationship. In an increasingly digital world, I believe the spirit, intention, communication and medium will define the offboarding experience versus the medium of choice,” she said.

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© iTnews Asia
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