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Managing Remote Workers: How to Terminate Remote Employees

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Read Time: 12 mins

Remote work isn’t going away anytime soon. Even though location-specific workplaces are opening up again and employees are returning to their offices, many positions will continue to be remote.

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Remote work is the new normal for many companies. (Image source: Envato Elements)

According to a recent FlexJobs article several companies like Atlassian, Dropbox, and Microsoft have decided to keep their workers either partly or completely remote for the foreseeable future.

If you’re managing remote workers, at some point, you’re going to have to terminate one or more of them. Letting go of a team member is difficult enough in traditional work settings. Remote work arrangements can make the situation even harder. And many managers are unfamiliar with how to manage off-site employees and overcome their particular challenges. This can aggravate an already sensitive situation.

This article will help you to set up guidelines and procedures specifically for letting remote workers go. You’ll become aware of the issues and risks that apply to location-independent workers, and how to mitigate them.

None of what follows is a legal opinion. Always consult an attorney before making legal decisions for your organization.

Communication, Productivity, and Other Challenges in a Remote Workplace

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Remote workers can be more productive than on-site employees. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Companies new to having off-site employees may wonder how to make sure remote workers are working. But some studies suggest that remote workers are more productive than on-site workers. A two-year study of over 800,000 Fortune 500 employees found that their productivity increased when they shifted to working from home. 

But remote work presents unique communication and other challenges that may lead to a dismissal or make a termination more complicated than it already is. These challenges include:

1. Working in Silos

Because employees in a distributed workforce have fewer opportunities to interact with each other, there’s an increased tendency to work in silos. This means they lack visibility on what other team members are doing. This could explain why management is always looking to increase accountability for remote workers. The tendency to work in silos can also result in poor collaboration and innovation.

2. Asynchronous Communication and Collaboration

With people distributed in different locations and time zones, responses to messages may not be timely. This could delay the completion of tasks and projects, as workers spend a lot of time waiting on each other. Some remote employees may also have to attend virtual meetings that take place at times when they would normally be asleep. This could affect their performance both during the meeting and afterwards.

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The asynchronous communication of working remotely can affect off-site workers' productivity and effectiveness. (Image source: Envato Elements)

3. Miscommunication

Communication when working remotely is always mediated. It takes place over video conferencing, email, messaging, or phone. These are simply not as effective as face-to-face communication. That's because remote workers don’t have the benefit of sensing the nuances and more information provided by body language, voice inflection, and other non-verbal communication. It’s easy for miscommunication to happen as a result.

4. Isolation

Remote workers are more susceptible to feeling isolated and lonely. They no longer have the camaraderie that spontaneously develops among co-workers who interact in-person regularly. This could lead to reduced engagement and motivation on the job, which could further result in a drop in productivity. This also means that unemployment may be a bigger blow for remote workers than for office-based employees.

As you can see, the challenges of remote work can lead to performance problems that may become grounds for termination. But if these problems are addressed, performance issues may be prevented from happening in the first place. Sometimes terminating an employee for performance reasons is unnecessary if the above problems are handled early.

Issues for Companies That Have to Let Remote Workers Go in 2021

Whether a termination takes place in an office-based or a distributed team, the best practices for letting go of employees remain the same. The following best practices are recommended for the termination of both location-specific and remote workers. But there may be special considerations for remote workers:

1. Keep It Legal

Review the contract you have with the worker. It'll usually specify the termination notice, separation pay, and other items related to the termination of their employment.

Also examine applicable laws to make sure you're meeting your legal obligations. For remote workers, generally, the applicable labor laws are the ones where the worker is physically located and performing the work—not where your business is located or registered.

Consult with a lawyer, preferably one specializing in multi-state compliance of labor and tax laws. (In fact, you should consult a lawyer when drawing up employment contracts to begin with.)

2. Respect the Employee’s Dignity

Always treat everyone with dignity and respect. This means responding to the dismissed employee with empathy and compassion, even if they become hostile. Give them the time and space to process the termination and to get their affairs in order.

Losing one's income and occupation has a big negative impact on their lives, as well as in the lives of their dependents. This is why job loss is considered one of the life's most stressful events. It's a recognized contributory factor to illness.

Also be extra sensitive when using mediated communication if you can't deliver the bad news in person (more on this below).

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Consider how the dismissal will affect someone who may already be feeling isolated and provide all the support you can. (Image source: Envato Elements)

3. Make Sure It’s Not a Performance “Management” Issue

As we’ve seen above, remote work poses challenges that can undermine an employees’ level of engagement, motivation, and performance. These challenges can be overcome with effective management. This includes tracking the employee’s performance and giving feedback regularly. And if their performance is lacking, good management means working with them to come up with a plan to bring their performance up to par.

If everything has been done but performance still fell below standard, then the termination shouldn’t come as a surprise to the employee. It may even be mutually agreed upon, especially when other options have been explored to improve their work.

4. Off-board Properly and Securely

Make sure your organization’s projects will continue to hum along smoothly even after the termination. Have a continuity plan for handing off projects to team members who’ll be taking over the work.

Also make sure to keep your company safe. 

  • Revoke the terminated staff’s access and control of your company’s servers, website, social media profiles, network, web-based software, contacts databases, and other digital assets.
  • Back up critical information before dismissing the employee.
  • Arrange to collect company equipment you've provided them, such as laptops, monitors, and the like.

5. Don’t Forget the Employees Who Are Staying

Finally, remember that terminations also affect the employees who are left behind. They may experience lower morale, caused by uncertainty and fear of being the next one to be dismissed. They’re also losing a colleague or a friend. Plus, if they’ve had to absorb the terminated employee’s responsibilities, they may experience increased pressure and stress.

Make sure to inform the team about the termination while protecting the employee’s privacy and dignity. Address the rest of your team’s fears. Let them know what you’re doing to ensure a smooth transition or turnover.

How to Fire Employees Remotely

You’ve taken the above considerations to heart and formulated plans for a smooth and secure off-boarding. Now you’re ready to have that difficult conversation of telling a remote worker they’re being let go. 

Here are specific pieces of advice for letting go of remote workers:

1. Choose High-Touch Communication

If at all possible, deliver the news in person. This is feasible for remote jobs within the same city or region as the company’s headquarters. Arrange to speak in-person, because that shows more respect. It’s also much easier to show empathy and to communicate more effectively when you’re face-to-face.

But if this isn’t possible, then a video conference is the next best option. And if that isn’t available, either, then speak over the phone. Terminating an employee through email should be the absolute last resort, if other, higher-touch modes of communication aren’t possible.

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If at all possible, deliver the news in person. (Image source: Envato Elements)
Very Important. No matter how you choose to personally inform the worker of their dismissal, you may be required by law to put the termination in writing (also known as a “written notice of termination”). If so, do this in addition to speaking with the remote worker.

2. Be Transparent in Your Communication

Be honest about the reasons for the termination. If it’s performance-related, be prepared with documentation of their performance reviews, key performance indicators (KPIs), and other ways you’ve been tracking performance.

If the termination is due to financial reasons such as bankruptcy or insolvency, prepare to show your company’s financials. Make sure they’re easy to understand, even for a lay person. Be ready to answer any questions that may come up.

3. Inform the Worker About Off-boarding Plans

Don’t shock and upset terminated workers unnecessarily by removing their access to work-related platforms before you’ve spoken to them. Even if you must revoke access immediately after—or even during—your conversation (such as for security reasons), this is still better than giving them no heads up at all.

4. Brace Yourself for a Negative Impact

Even if you’ve been considerate and respectful, the terminated employee may still respond negatively to losing their job. Some may retaliate publicly, such as by bad-mouthing the company on social media. This is why it’s a good idea to always check your social media mentions. (You should be doing this anyway, even if you haven’t terminated employees).

A disgruntled employee may also choose to take legal action against you and the company. As mentioned before, make sure your legal bases are covered. Hire a lawyer as necessary.

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Dismissing an employee in a remote workplace has its peculiar challenges. (Image source: Envato Elements)

5. Be Gentle Yet Firm

While you want to be gentle, you also need to be firm. Make it clear that the decision has already been made. The termination isn't up for discussion or negotiation.

It may help to keep the conversation forward-looking, such as by talking about what happens next. You can also share what plans you've got to help them find their next position. 

Unemployment for Remote Workers

Another important thing to consider when letting go of a remote worker is the unemployment benefits they may be entitled to. Unemployment benefits most likely depend on whether they’re a remote employee or a remote contractor

Typically, unemployment for remote employees include a minimum notice period, severance pay, and/or unemployment benefits. For example, some laws require the employer to give a remote employee two weeks termination notice or termination pay in lieu of this notice period. But a remote contractor may not be entitled to any of these. 

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Unemployment benefits may be different for remote employees vs remote contractors. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Unemployment benefits for remote workers may also be affected by the reason for termination. When a remote employee is dismissed for cause—such as for the perpetration of fraud or theft, misconduct, or habitual neglect of duty—the employer is no longer obligated to provide termination notice and other severance benefits.

Remember, laws differ for each country and region within each country, so refer to the appropriate government policies. Again, for remote workers, the applicable laws are the ones in effect where the worker resides. Below are links to employment and workplace policies in specific countries:

Laws dictate the obligations employers have to terminated workers. But you can always do more as a gesture of goodwill, as your budget allows. For example, some companies continue to include former employees and contractors in their Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs provide counselling, online programs, articles, and other forms of support covering health, wellness, finances, etc.

Other employers may also decide to give a bigger separation pay than what the law requires. They may even give severance pay to contractors.

Learn More About Remote Workers

Effective management of remote workers may make termination unnecessary. But if not, an open and positive remote work environment helps make a termination go more smoothly for all parties concerned. The key is to always be nurturing a positive work culture that helps workers to be their happiest, most productive selves.

Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group, has been quoted as saying:

There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.

If you need tips for managing remote workers, you may find these posts helpful in managing remote workers:

An Amicable Parting of Ways

Terminating employees is never easy. Letting go of remote workers has its own complications. Even so, you can take steps to make the parting of ways as amicable as possible. 

Begin by ensuring you’re following applicable employment and workplace laws. Always give the employee or contractor the respect you would like to be given if you were in their place. And, finally, be particularly sensitive to the peculiar needs remote workers have.

You need human resources policies to help you navigate the intricacies of employee relations. These include policies and processes for firing remote workers. Have these in place before your company or organization needs them. Hopefully, the information in this post has given you a good place start.

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