Rude awakening | Midnight text tells staff they're fired - a new low for mismanaged lay-offs?

Midnight text tells staff they're fired - a new low for mismanaged lay-offs?

Thousands of workers woke up to a text from their company informing them they’d been laid off with immediate effect.

The New York Post reports that United Furniture Industries, a firm based in Mississippi, US, sent messages to around 2,700 employees – its entire workforce - shortly before midnight last week, explaining their employment had been terminated and they would not be no allowed to return to work. Workers were later given instructions of how and when to collect any personal belongings that they had left at the premises.

The reason behind the mass dismissal has not been confirmed.

“At the instruction of the board of directors… we regret to inform you that due to unforeseen business circumstances, the company has been forced to make the difficult decision to terminate the employment of all its employees, effective immediately,” the message read.

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All employee benefits, including health insurance, were also axed, despite a federal law that gives terminated employees the option to keep their employer-sponsored health insurance under certain circumstances.

The timing of the texts meant that many workers woke up to the news they suddenly had no job to go to that morning.

The publication also revealed that at least one former employee of UFI has since launched legal action, alleging the company broke the law by not providing adequate notice of the layoffs.

‘The message is more important than the medium’

In the current era of hybrid working, it is understandable that many firms are adapting the way they announce major company decisions – with Zoom calls and mass phone calls often becoming the medium for unwanted news such as job cuts.

And although the situation unfolded in the US, incidents of sudden - and distinctly digital - dismissals have been experiences by many workers on this side of the Atlantic in the past few months.

In March 2022, P&O Ferries hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, when hundreds of the company’s staff were told, via a video clip, that March 17 would mark their final day of employment. In the same recorded clip, the firm told staff they were being replaced with cheaper agency staff.

Earlier in the pandemic, HR Grapevine reported on the news that online US mortgage firm sacked 900 employees over a Zoom call. After a backlash on social media, CEO Vishal Garg apologised for failing to show adequate "respect and appreciation" for the employees he sacked.

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And in more similar circumstances to those at United Furniture, in 2018, staff at Johnston Press (later JPIMedia and now National World), one of the UK’s biggest newspaper groups, received texts after 9pm on a Friday night to explain that the company had gone into administration and their contracts were being transferred to a new company.

Speaking previously to HR Grapevine about virtual redundancy announcements, such as video calls, Adele Edwin-Lamerton, Senior Associate, Employment at Kingsley Napley, said the move to digital-first working practices mean that many in-person meetings now take place online.

She said: “Due to the increase in hybrid working, meetings which previously would have only taken place in person now frequently occur remotely. Although this can feel impersonal, what is key is that the appropriate process is followed. It’s not so much the medium which is used, but the message it conveys which is important.

“However pressed they are for time, employers should remember that they need to adopt a fair process and consult with their employees.”

‘Leaders need more digital training’

Professor Jonathan Passmore, Senior Vice President at CoachHub, feels that digital communications do have an important role to play when announcing job losses, particularly at large firms like Klarna, hearing the news personally from ones' line manager is preferable to hearing you have lost your job in a broadcast communication.

Passmore previously explained: “... as part of the C-Suite’s wider communication remit there is also a role to be played by a broadcast communication during the process of letting an employee go. This communication should explain more about the background to the decision, taking responsibility and sharing in the pain which such decisions cause for the individual, their family and the wider community, if the firm is a large local employer.

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“Technology is a facilitator of communications, but just because we can, does not mean we should. Leaders need to leverage technology while not losing sight of the humans who are receiving such messages. A broadcast message ensures everyone receives the same message, at the same time, but its strength is its weakness, as not every individual is the same. For some a redundancy may be welcome news, for others a mild disappointment, while for many it provokes both a financial and personal crisis."

Passmore concluded: “At present, leaders have little training on digital communications and few organisations have protocols. As we move forward in 2022, business schools need to look again at what a leader in a hybrid world looks like and adjust what they teach. Meanwhile, organisations must look critically at their processes to ensure they still concentrate on the people which make up their organisation, putting into place support mechanisms such as workplace and career transition coaching, to help their employees navigate recent years’ life changes."

What should the redundancy process look like?

The redundancy process is wrought with stress and anxiety, not just for employees, but also the HR teams overseeing the process. It’s crucial, therefore, that process is handled sensitively and professionally.

On its website, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) offers insight from Paul Holcroft, Associate Director at Croner, who advises firms on their HR policies – part of which covers redundancy packages. He said that honesty and clarity are the critical components of successful support.

“Being made redundant can be an incredibly distressing time, so it is essential that employers maintain regular dialogue with affected staff,” Holcroft said.

“Given the complexity of a redundancy procedure, employers should provide individuals with a clear explanation of their rights and a timeframe for when decisions will be made. This reduces any unnecessary stress and ill feeling among the workforce. Employees with a minimum of two years’ service are eligible for a reasonable amount of time off to look for new work or to arrange training for future employment.”

Similarly, official guidance from the CIPD explained that ‘redundancy should be a last resort’.

“It can be one of the most distressing events an employee can experience. It requires sensitive handling by the employer to ensure fair treatment of redundant employees as well as the productivity and morale of the remaining workforce. Redundancy legislation and case law is complex, and employers must understand their obligations, including employees' rights and the correct procedures to follow,” the body’s official advice explained.

Elena Cooper, Employment Consultant at Discreet Law, previously shared with HR Grapevine some suggestions of how leaders can go about handling the redundancy process more sensitively.

Cooper explained: “These thoughts cost nothing: say how sorry you are to lose the employee, confirm everything possible was done to avoid ending their termination, confirm you will consider them for future employment if anything changes, offer a reference with ‘warm words’, it doesn't affect your liability to say ‘we wish [employee name] every success in future and we were very sorry to lose them from our team’. And finally – how about doing it in person where possible?”

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