We’re in a new world of work! If there’s anything this time has taught us, it’s that remote-first, hybrid, or distributed workforces are here to stay. And while the “work-from-anywhere” model has its share of benefits for both you and your employees, there will still come a time when you realize someone isn’t a good fit for your team, and vice versa.
It’s important to make sure you’re ready to handle all stages of the employee lifecycle at a distance, from remote hiring to the F word: firing. And that’s why I’m here. I’ve been working on people teams with remote-first workforces since before the pandemic, and there are a couple of things that I’ve learned throughout my experience that might help you navigate these tricky waters a little more easily.
As you know, employee terminations and mutual separations of any kind are complicated, so we’ll separate this into a couple of sections.
First, we’ll talk about how to avoid unnecessary employee terminations:
- Keep communications clear from day one
- Honor employee contributions regularly
- Include criteria for remote work in performance reviews
Then, I’ll walk you through five steps to a successful separation day:
- Be prepared
- Consider offboarding needs ahead of time
- Use video conferencing for enhanced empathy and clarity
- Start early and move quickly
- Notify the team of the termination
How to avoid unnecessary remote employee terminations
No one wants to fire a team member, and it should be a long road before you get there. In addition to the discomfort terminations cause on both sides, lots of turnover can be really expensive for your business. It’s in your best interest—for both company culture and your bottom line—to put some employee retention strategies in place sooner rather than later.
Here are three ways you can manage remote employees and stop some personnel issues before they start:
1. Keep communications clear from day one
When working as a remote employee, it can be really difficult to know if you’re doing the right thing. It’s incredibly important to the employee experience to be able to gauge the culture, or how things get done, whether within the team or cross-functionally.
Throughout the interview process, you have expectations of what the individual in the role will do. It’s important to keep those top-of-mind with the individual in a way that it continues to evolve as the individual and the role develop and change.
Make sure to keep remote team members in the loop to the same degree as any on-site employees so everyone feels included. One way to improve communication is to create an online workspace for all employees to gather for file sharing, team messaging, and even face-to-face collaboration via video conferencing.
2. Honor employee contributions regularly
An important thing to remember: employees, upon signing their contract, made a sacrifice to work with your company. It’s important to honor that, even when discovering later down the line that the opportunity is not the best fit on either side.
A great way to do this is to bake employee recognition into your company’s DNA. Make time for it during regular staff meetings as well as quarterly and annual updates. Find ways for team members to uplift one another’s hard work, but it’s crucial that appreciation comes from leadership, too.
3. Include criteria for remote work in performance reviews
The nature of work has changed dramatically in recent years, so why shouldn’t performance reviews?
Keep your remote team members in mind as you plan updates to your performance rubrics and reviews. Include items and language that apply specifically to their unique situation so they feel seen and validated, as well as properly evaluated. It also might be more important than ever to include a level of self-evaluation in the review process, since remote work is much more autonomous.
An important note: don’t spring new evaluation criteria on your teams at the last minute. Be sure to communicate any changes well in advance of review time—preferably at the beginning of the year—so folks will understand how expectations have shifted.
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How to fire an employee remotely: 5 steps to a successful separation day
Despite your best efforts as a leader, there’s bound to come a day when you need to separate from an employee. While employee terminations are uncomfortable for everyone, these guiding principles can help you navigate separation with remote employees as efficiently, and kindly, as possible.
1. Be prepared
Whatever your separation agreement is, make sure to have this in hand for reference when you start the meeting. It’s also important to prepare any communications you’ll need to share that the employee is no longer with the company and how anyone who wants to wish them well can communicate with them.
2. Consider offboarding needs ahead of time
Most remote employees have a certain level of access and permissions to your shared software and server that allow them to do their jobs. Make sure you remove any sensitive tools or IT access for the employee prior to the separation meeting.
Depending on the circumstances, it might be possible to keep the employee connected and active on the team-communication software so they can pass off tasks, files, and other information before departing.
3. Use video conferencing for enhanced empathy and clarity
As workforces become more distributed, video calls are a way to make sure you’re leading with empathy and humanity, especially during the toughest conversations
Being on video means you can mutually read and understand one another’s body language, facial expressions, and overall tone. It’s also great to gauge reactions so you can understand where there might be a gap in understanding.
4. Start early and move quickly
Try to schedule the termination call earlier in the day; it’s never a good feeling to work a full shift just to get “that call” at the end of the day. To avoid unnecessary anxieties, it’s better to ask to hop on a call at the start of the day instead of scheduling something for later on.
5. Notify the team of the termination
Every employee is part of your team and culture, and they’re definitely connected to some, if not all, of their team members. When a separation occurs, it’s natural for folks to have a variety of reactions and emotions arise. Do your best to get ahead of the conversations and set the tone.
This is another aspect of transparent communication. It’s important to share the basic details with other employees. Stay positive in your messaging to ensure that morale stays high, and reassure other employees that their positions are safe.
Letting go of remote employees: For best results, lead with the heart
I hope, thanks to this helpful guide, you now feel a little more at ease with separating with remote employees. While it’s never fun, being prepared and leading with empathy can make the process a little easier on everyone.
But remember: empathy and humanity can’t start at the time of termination. It’s incredibly important to build and maintain a culture that holds these values dear from day one. Employees make big sacrifices to sign with companies, and when there’s a separation, it’s never easy on either side. But when it’s done right, you might be able to reach a mutual agreement that the separation is the next best step for everyone to take together.
Originally published Feb 11, 2021, updated Dec 30, 2022