In a distributed team, dismissing someone is a precision operation where rumors and panic are the default setting. You don’t have the ability to have a private, in-person meeting and escort the dismissed person out of the building, and then address your staff all together afterwards. As soon as you have a video call to dismiss someone, you will lose control of the narrative and rumors will spread. Your staff will have heard the dismissed person’s side of the story via instant message or online on social media as soon as the dismissal happens.
People rarely expect to be fired, even with serious feedback and performance improvement plans. In a remote setting, when you don’t visibly see your teammate dejected after a meeting with a manager, or appearing stressed or under-performing at work, people will often have no inkling at all that someone else’s job is at risk until they disappear from the company. Given this environment, it’s easy for people to believe that the dismissal was a complete surprise, and that if a surprise dismissal happened to someone else, then they might be abruptly fired, too. The worst case scenario here is rumors of layoffs framed as “firings” starting a panic. In this case, you run the risk of top performers (who will most easily find another job) preemptively quitting before they get “laid off.” This is an expensive mistake.
The best antidote is clear, consistent communication. Following a firing, it’s important that every single line manager tell the same essential story. Broad strokes of that story can be shared to the whole company. You, and all managers, will need to be kind, attentive, and available to your team. Should people across teams discuss the dismissal among themselves, they’ll all enter with the same set of facts, having observed the same calm, caring behavior in the manager who dismissed their peer. This goes a long way to prevent panic.
Chronological Communication Plan
A dismissal will involve planning and communicating carefully in the leadup, during, and after the actual firing:
Several days before. Preparation.
Informing HR and your line manager (if appropriate).
Writing your script for the actual conversation, and rehearsing it several times.
Getting severance agreements ready. This includes agreeing on the severance pay amount and getting it approved. You will want to have this exact amount in writing for the teammate.
Informing any partners or close stakeholders whom you can trust to remain confidential.
Putting all the documented feedback into a folder online (such as Dropbox, Google Drive, your intranet) so that the company has a record of pre-termination feedback.
Writing up a company- or team-wide announcement. You’ll want to be kind, respectful of the person, and appreciative of their contributions. This includes being as specific with the reasons for letting them go as you can respectfully be.
Asking someone to read this over for you. This announcement will determine whether staff feel at ease with the company decision, or wary.
Writing a support plan for the affected team, detailing how tasks will be handled, who will fill the role, and what the plan is to hire again.
Writing talking points for managers of other teams, to answer questions about the dismissal.
Scheduling a meeting with the person who will be dismissed.
Scheduling a meeting for the person’s immediate team, without them.
Ensuring your people operations or IT person is ready to deprovision accounts.
The day of. Following your plan.
Giving your line manager a heads-up an hour before the dismissal meeting.
Having the meeting to dismiss the teammate (with your script) . At this point, rumors will spread, and the teammate may share angry sentiments. You will want to remove company communication access as soon as you can.
Having the meeting with their immediate team to share the news and answer questions.
Talking to anyone else who’s a close peer, or who will be directly affected.
Posting the company or team-wide announcement on the same day. The dismissed teammate will probably be talking to your team on social media, and is likely to feel shocked and surprised by the news, which will destabilize your staff.
Sending talking points to all people managers. Explain why it matters that all managers tell the same story (to avoid rumors and talk of layoffs).
The next day. Following up.
In the case of a higher-profile dismissal (a manager or leader), you will need to speak to senior individual contributors or veterans to ask them explicitly to help you stabilize their team. You can also ask for a pulse on how the news is being taken.
It’s important to ensure you hold office hours, should anyone want to speak with you directly. A calendar booking system can make this easier.