Voluntary departures—when someone chooses to move on to a new job on a different team or at a new company—can be sad or disappointing, but also can be a chance for the team to express its community feeling. In a remote team, the departing person should receive the same, if not more, celebration and well-wishes than you’d give for the last day of a valued in-office co-worker. It’s easy for a remote team member to just disappear as if they were never there, and the temptation can be to let this happen. We strongly recommend that you not do this; it hurts morale by making people wonder what ‘really’ happened, and by creating the feeling that the company doesn’t care if remote team members leave.
To counteract this, it’s best to be intentional about how voluntary departures are handled. You can encourage the team member to share a company- or team-wide announcement themselves, communicating their decision to move on, and providing personal details so that co-workers can keep in touch. A message from the teammate themself helps dispel any rumor that they were dismissed.
On their last day, you may have their manager organize a goodbye video call, where everyone shares what they appreciated about that person and wishes them well. Having a “cheering you on” celebration by sharing GIFs and messages in the company chat room can also send people off on a positive note. Making sure departures are handled gracefully helps to nurture a culture that your company is both a good place to work, and also a good place to have worked: people go on to good things and aren’t resented, or gossiped about, for leaving. Counter-intuitively, this helps the remaining people feel that the job they’re currently at is a good one, rather than a toxic place where people gossip about those who move on.
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.
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