As many 2024 layoffs go virtual, how HR can reduce risk of going viral

From Condé Nast executive Anna Wintour wearing sunglasses during last month’s layoffs at music site Pitchfork to the Los Angeles Times using a mass Zoom meeting to deliver its bad news, a wave of 2024 layoffs has highlighted the risks of letting employees go virtually. While experts say there can be sensitive ways to deliver such news online, if virtual layoffs don’t meet that threshold, the employer could face PR backlash, future hiring troubles and even legal problems.

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Gabby Macrina, assistant coordinator at Next PR, says that employers that do choose to deliver layoff news virtually should strategize in advance, particularly for potential social media pushback. For instance, she points to the “Get Laid Off With Me” trend picking up steam on TikTok as social media users record and share their virtual layoff news.

Such negative exposure for the employer, Macrina says, can spread fast, so employers should prepare. For instance, HR should work with the team that manages the company’s social media profiles before layoffs to stay updated on company-related hashtags. Such a move can enable the team to quickly keep its finger on the pulse of responses post-layoff and engage with social media posts in a timely manner when appropriate.

Gabby Macrina
Gabby Macrina

“It’s not uncommon to see social media users take their grievances to public platforms,” she says. Such posts can significantly affect public perception of the employer brand, which could ultimately hinder hiring efforts.

See also: An alarming number of employees are worried about layoffs. What HR can do

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She points to the recent backlash against Cloudflare, which went viral after a former employee posted a video of her poorly executed virtual termination, in which leadership repeatedly failed to respond effectively to her questions. The company’s Glassdoor rating dropped to just two stars, well below the average platform rating of 3.6.

“Below-average ratings negatively impact your company’s reputation, recruiting and sales efforts, and even the likelihood of future media coverage and award wins,” Macrina says. “We see it time and time again, companies that mismanage layoffs are caught off guard by negative pushback on social media.”

Use empathy to drive strategy in 2024 layoffs

Heidi Reavis, a partner at employment law firm Reavis Page Jump LLP in New York City, says virtual termination meetings can be appropriate if in-person discussions aren’t feasible. However, she advises clients to have at least two employer representatives on the call, and they should ideally be in different roles—for instance, the employee’s manager and an HR professional.

Transparency is also key, she says. Employer representatives should be prepared to provide information about the individual’s last day of work, anticipated transition, pre-termination notice period, severance period and insurance matters. Employers should consult their employment handbook and any legal documentation, such as an employment agreement, to understand their obligations to the employee before a virtual termination meeting.

Heidi Reavis
Heidi Reavis

Reavis also explains that HR should not discuss its actions concerning others at the company or anyone else’s private or health information. “Less is more” tends to be the mantra for layoffs, she says.

Given the viral 2024 layoffs that have already happened, Reavis says, however, HR needs to be more intentional than ever in planning for the communication, both internal and external, surrounding layoffs. While any termination is not generally a positive experience, she notes, employers have an opportunity to be as empathetic and helpful in the process as possible.

Some employers are looking to reduce the risk of online pushback by being precise with their language during layoff meetings—for instance, using the word “rightsizing” instead of “fired,” Macrina notes.

Ultimately, she says, the most effective way to safeguard against reputational damage from virtual layoffs is to ensure that empathy is at the strategy’s heart. For instance, having the news delivered by someone the employee has worked closely with can help soften the blow of a virtual termination.

“Communicate honestly, transparently and proactively,” she says. “Act with empathy toward the employees affected.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].