My last blog pushed the idea that communicators should be champions of empathy to their leaders. Then along came an example of what happens when leaders don’t pay attention.
Vishal Garg, the CEO of digital mortgage company Better.com, invited 900 employees, about 15% of the company, to a Zoom session on December 1. Once everyone was logged in, he fired them.
“If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off,” Garg told his workers. “Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.”
Garg did offer those affected some severance. However, his attempt at empathy soon turned to the last person on the call it should go to: himself.
“This is the second time in my career I’m doing this, and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it I cried. Um, this time, I hope to be stronger,” Garg said.
A few things worth noting:
One, it’s not unusual for companies to lay off employees at year’s end before new corporate budgets kick in. I’m no fan of this, of course; if layoffs have to happen, businesses should let people know far in advance. There are ways to mitigate the risks of operational disruptions and early exits. Better.com deciding to do it in December, and to immediate effect, is not out of the norm—though it should be.
Two, for good or ill, taking to Zoom is the pandemic era’s version of a mass meeting of employees. I’ve participated in the latter, and it can be heartbreaking to watch as people learn their jobs are going away. What makes such an in-person meeting valuable, though, is the chance for employees to ask questions (and for leaders to answer), support one another, and collectively come to grips with what’s happening. Options like Zoom, Teams or Skype take away that opportunity while making bad-news delivery a little too convenient. If a virtual gathering is the only option, it needs to be structured so the same opportunities exist—Q&A, directly engaging leaders, providing tools for connecting with resources, even optional breakout rooms for people to gather. As far as I know, none of that was part of Better.com’s approach.
Three, and this is the big one that Garg either dismissed or was too tone deaf to realize: It’s not about the CEO. Not even a little bit. While I can sympathize to a degree with his discomfort, whether he weeps when telling 900 people they don’t have jobs is irrelevant. Those people (and their families) are what matter.
Not that Garg is an empathetic character, if other reports are true.
On the other hand, Better.com’s communication leadership chose a tough, personal path. When Garg refused their counsel for a more sensitive approach and pulled his Zoom stunt, they quit en masse.
Perhaps Garg is starting to recognize his monumental insensitivity. Today he issued an apology, stating that he “failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected.” No doubt the deluge of negative publicity has something to do with it.
This devastating event underscores the consequences when we don’t continually exercise empathy: The heart turns flabby and cold, people suffer, and business reputations are trashed.
I admire the communicators who left Better.com when their CEO rejected their guidance and embraced his own indifference. The fallout should show the business world what happens when it fails to listen to the champions of empathy. Let's hope it's a lesson learned.