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The Margin: Better.com CEO fired over 900 people on a Zoom call — will your next pink slip come via video?

Is there a tactful way to fire an employee over Zoom?

That is the question many are asking in light of the news that Better.com CEO Vishal Garg terminated the jobs of 900-plus workers last week via the video platform. “If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off,” said the mortgage company executive as he delivered the news.

It may seem a harsh and impersonal approach, but human-resource experts say it’s the new reality of the workplace, especially in the pandemic era. With many employees working from home — and with the expectation that many will continue to do so even as we move past the health crisis — companies will likely do much of their firing (and hiring) via video.

If anything, human-resources experts say it could be even more awkward to ask remote employees to come in to the office unexpectedly, only to then hit them with a pink slip.

“Zoom may be better,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources.

Experts also say there may be benefits for workers to receive the bad news from home, where they can immediately connect with family members and parse the situation. “They’re in a safe space,” said Laurie Ruettimann, a former human-resources executive who now works as a consultant.

Better.com CEO Vishal Garg on the Zoom call where he fired more than 900 employees

YouTube

Which is not to say there aren’t ways for companies to lessen the blow, human-resources professionals advise. In some respects, the same rules apply whether a business is doing the dismissals in person or via video — namely, it should be handled with a degree of both succinctness and care, experts say: Employees need to quickly understand why they are being let go and what kind of severance package, if any, they are being offered. But they also need to know that the employer understands the enormity of the situation.

““It doesn’t matter what medium you’re using if the person delivering the message is an a—hole.””

— Deborah Copaken

“You must show empathy, that you’ve been on their side of the table,” said Brian A. Marks, a former software-industry executive who is now a senior lecturer in economics and business analytics at the University of New Haven.

But experts also admit it can be harder to provide such emotional support in a video conference. Which is why some suggest finding ways to provide a personal touch. Hema Crockett, one of the authors of Designing Exceptional Organizational Cultures: How to Develop Companies Where Employees Thrive, says a possible approach is for an employer to send a handwritten note of personal thanks and encouragement after the main announcement. “It’s something that shows the humanity piece of it,” she said.

Ultimately, the Better.com situation may have been less about the fact the firings were done via video, and more about the attitude of the company and its chief executive, says Deborah Copaken, an author who wrote a piece last year for The Atlantic about her experience losing a job over Zoom. (Copaken declined to reveal in the story the specific company she worked for, although she identified it as a health-tech start-up.)

Copaken told MarketWatch that Garg didn’t pass the empathy test, so the Zoom situation was largely irrelevant. “It doesn’t matter what medium you’re using if the person delivering the message is an a—hole,” she said.

And Garg has come under fire for his often harsh management style, according to various news reports. Forbes reported that he once sent a critical email to staff in which he said: “You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS… YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME.” Fortune also reported that Garg accused some of the recently fired employees of working only two hours per day.

In the wake of Garg’s handling of the layoffs, three Better.com top executives have resigned, according to Insider. A source familiar with Garg told Insider that Better.com employees are “undermined by a CEO that doesn’t take advice from anyone and believes he’s always right.”

A Better.com spokesperson said the company did provide severance benefits to the newly dismissed workers, including four weeks of pay. And in an email Garg sent to employees that was obtained by MarketWatch, the CEO apologized for his handling of the firings. “I failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected and for their contributions to Better,” he wrote in the email.

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