Fired Over Zoom: Everything Wrong With the Better.com’s CEO’s Layoffs of 900 Employees

Tom Popomaronis | December 7, 2021

Modern leadership has been redefined over the past two years. Today, some of the most important attributes surround self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and empathy. Leaders have not only evolved to embody these characteristics, but their employees expect them as well – and it represents a “new normal” of effective leadership.

During my weekend dose of aimless TikTok scrolling, I stumbled across the viral video of Better.com’s CEO, Vishal Garg, laying off 900 employees on Zoom. I was immediately overwhelmed with feelings of extreme discomfort, utter disappointment, and overall disgust with the handling.

Where I am truly sympathetic to the 900 employees who were on the receiving end of Garg’s disingenuous script, this layoff PR crisis will, and should, become an infamous example of how not to lead.

1. Respect your team’s intelligence enough to unpack the details.

A layoff message is not a time to be cryptically brief. Delivering a canned message about markets and business survival gives no one confidence that absolutely every other alternative was considered. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, was forced to deliver a similar message to his staff in 2020. However, the way he unraveled the decision-making process for his staff was both beautiful and compassionate. He clarified who and why. He tied the decisions back to the company’s core values to demonstrate that they wouldn’t lose who they were as a company, honoring his employees and their commitment to the organization up until their final day. I’ve never seen such a classy, graceful, and genuine layoff – and in the event that it happens, it’s how it should be.

2. Do everything you can to make it right. For everyone, not just for you.

Chesky and his team made another move that demonstrated with actions, rather than words, that they wanted to live into integrity and do right for everyone who had given so much up for the company over the years. This won’t look the same in every situation, but at Airbnb, their heart was at the core of it all. It meant giving their soon-to-be-former employees every tool possible to help them find their next job placement, including their laptops. It meant additional severance, accelerated equity vesting, and extended healthcare coverage. They redirected resources: recruiters became job placement experts. It was smart business and the right thing to do.

3. True empathy doesn’t focus on how the situation impacts us.

When delivering devastating news, it’s not in anyone’s best interest for you to lean into the reasons why it’s difficult for you to give the news. One of the Garg’s opening lines was that these layoffs would “hopefully” enable the company to thrive again. The underlying message? “After we trim our dead weight by removing you from our company, we hope our future will be brighter.” Where should you lean? Compassion. Lead, support, and end with an assurance that the difficulty your employees are facing is your number one concern.

I’m a firm believer that we get back what we put out into the world. There are ways to make decisions that protect, honor, and care for the lives of other human beings, and there are ways that minimize our own pain and discomfort. These difficult moments, though complicated, will define how the world experience us as leaders. How do you want to be remembered?

EVP, Innovation
Tom is a serial entrepreneur, product development expert, and content management strategist. Every hour of every day (perhaps too many hours) he focuses on strategies for our Executive Leadership Branding clients to build a powerful and credible online reputation.