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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