What Better.com Could Have Done, Well, Better: 3 Key Takeaways for HR and Leaders

Reductions in force—or simply, layoffs—are a difficult time for all involved. But there’s a right way and a horribly wrong way (see also: CEO of Better.com) to deliver the bad news. Here’s how HR can help companies get it right.
What Better.com Could Have Done, Well, Better- 3 Key Takeaways for HR and Leaders
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  • What Better.com Could Have Done, Well, Better: 3 Key Takeaways for HR and Leaders

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A few clicks around the internet will reveal what seemingly everyone is talking about this week—the CEO who acted, let’s say, callously while laying his employees off via Zoom. 

Yup, that one. 

We know, we’re over here cringing, too. 

Whether you call them RIFs (reductions in force), layoffs, or something else, terminating employees is never easy on anyone. So, we thought this was a prime moment to examine what the CEO at Better.com could have done, well, better when terminating 900 of his employees this week. 

Here are the three key takeaways HR can learn from this fiasco to help their company stay out of the limelight if their leadership team has to deliver bad news. 

1. Lead With Empathy

… or the exact opposite of what CEO Vishal Garg did. 

For starters, Garg mostly talked about himself during the three-minute Zoom call. Instead of expressing his condolences, appreciation, or support for the impacted employees, he talked about why it was difficult—for him—to deliver this news. He shared that the last time he conducted layoffs he cried. And he even went so far as to tell the departing employees that he hoped these layoffs would “enable the company to thrive again.”

Let’s unpack that. 

This “leader”…

  • Made the delivery about why it was hard for him, not the people losing their jobs unexpectedly just weeks before the holidays. 
  • Showed no empathy for the impacted employees.
  • Explained that everyone on the Zoom call was getting laid off. So, why was he talking about the future of the company they no longer worked for?

HR leaders, here’s where you step in. Help your leaders deliver bad news with empathy. Thank employees for their contributions. Do not insult their intelligence or humanity by suggesting the company will be better off without them. 

The key here is to be as transparent and specific as possible with documentation that led to this decision of layoffs. Afterwards, let the employees ask questions and answer them specifically and empathetically."

This should all go without saying, but… here we are.

There is a phrase that I use when delivering bad news, “deliver cold water warmly.” The idea of delivering cold water warmly is that you can posture the news or the conversation with empathy which will not change the news but it will leave the employee feeling heard and understood. Ideally when delivering bad news you will be clear and you will provide understanding to the extent that you are able to.”

2. Take Ownership for Layoffs

As for the reasons for the layoffs? Garg cited “market efficiency, performance, and productivity,” and then also accused the staff of “stealing” from their colleagues and customers by being unproductive, according to Fortune

After the executive team (which should include HR) has come to a decision that is best for the company, they can prepare the managers who will stay on how to relay the news to the employees. The news should always be direct and directed.”

So, to add insult to injury, Garg was not only incredibly vague about the reasons for the layoffs—no mention of the company’s mission or values; no mention of strategy or goals; and certainly no taking ownership for the missteps that forced the decision to part ways with 900 employees—he also berates his soon-to-be former staff by accusing them of not working long or hard enough. 

Firing anyone is difficult. When you add in the potential for wrongful termination, it can be even more complicated and scary. As an HR professional, you are tasked with ensuring that the company isn’t breaking any laws in general, and that includes termination.”

By the way, last week the company received $750 million as part of a deal to go public.

Bad news should never be a surprise. If it's due to individual performance, the concerned employee should know well before. If it's the company's performance, then employees should also be partly aware, if not fully.”

HR pros, once again, here’s your call to action: Support your leaders with fostering better communication skills—whether that’s providing crisis communication training, helping them craft the messaging when the need to deliver bad news arises, or coaching them through how to be a 21st century leader.

Because, right now, not only are all 900 of those former employees out in the world telling their family, friends, and strangers on the internet never to work for or buy from Better.com, the other 90% of employees still working at Better.com are wondering, “Do I really want to work here?”

And we all know the answer

Supplemental reading: The Great Reshuffling: Why Your Top Talent is on the Move and How You Can Win Them Back

3. Help Employees Land on Their Feet

Actions speak louder than words—even when those words are kind. 

Like we mentioned earlier, layoffs are hard on all parties involved, but that doesn’t mean you wash your hands of the people who up until recently were your coworkers, direct reports, and friends. 

HR pros—here’s where you get creative to help employees land on their feet after they leave your organization. 

We’ve made a list with a few ideas to help you get started:

  • Offer severance pay (as much as you can)
  • Accelerate equity vesting
  • Extend healthcare coverage (beyond COBRA)
  • Redirect your internal resources, AKA tap your recruitment teams to help with interviewing workshops and job placement 
There is never an easy way to deliver bad news, however, there are best practices to help ease the shock impact to employees. Try to meet in person, let them know what is happening and why, then let them know what you are going to do to help ease any type of transition. For example, if it is a layoff or separation, let them know about their rights with unemployment, or help them with a severance policy, or even mention resources to help them transition into a new role on the market.”

HR Pros Always Have A Lot on Their Plates

As HR professionals, you help steer the ship in the direction of fairness and positive employee experiences. From crisis communications to rewards and recognition, you help implement the policies that attract, retain, and support employees. 

And we know your time is limited. That’s why we help take administrative tasks off your hands, so that you can focus on creating great employee experiences that, while they may not go viral, keep your people happy (and healthy).

We also do you one better: Each week, we curate the top industry news topics and deliver them right to your inbox. Subscribe to get our updates—and then join the conversation. We’d love to hear your ideas for how to make the world a better place to work. 

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