Jon Pole thought he could have been punished.
The voice on the other end of the line sounded like an automatic message, so measured and monotonous in its delivery.
It was not. The voice was real and told him to clear his desk.
In a 90-second conference call in January, Pole was fired from Bell Media. He went from an evening radio presenter at CJAD 800, a popular Montreal station with many followers, to one of hundreds of company employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic. It is not an unknown story in the Canadian media.
But something about that experience seemed different – the abrupt virtual meeting, the lack of explanation, the message from human resources inviting employees to call with an e-mail titled “Business Update”. The process seemed more insensitive than usual.
“My immediate reaction, honestly, was to laugh,” said Pole, who also operates radio stations in Renfrew, Ontario. “Because it felt like I was on a“ Saturday Night Live ”sketch about corporations driving people crazy. I thought, ‘It didn’t really happen like that, did it?’ “
Pole left the station after seven years on the air.
The company did not specify the total number of jobs lost at Bell Media, although at least 210 positions were cut in GTA alone.
In a major economic crisis, mass layoffs are expected. The dramatic measures taken by governments and companies to slow the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in waves of job cuts that have left virtually no sectors unscathed. But, unlike the so-called Times Before, when employees learned of the layoffs at a meeting at city hall or at their bosses’ offices, now employees face these layoffs alone – at their desks at home and on communication channels like Zoom, Skype or Slack.
Typically, cameras are turned off, microphones are silenced, and in a matter of seconds, a human resources representative reads the employee’s latest sacrifices.
This strategy, while quick and easy for the employer, is not only detrimental to the former employee’s mental health, but also creates an atmosphere of fear and distrust among those who remain, say business management experts.
“It is extremely isolating to be fired at home. We cannot meet face to face and discuss what happened, we did not receive the same type of warning to help us prepare for negative organizational events, ”said Nita Chhinzer, associate professor in human resources and business consulting at the University of Guelph.
“But this is common now. We will continue to see more layoffs at home, alone. “
Since the start of the pandemic, large corporations have continuously laid off hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. Air Canada has cut almost 20,000 workers since March. Bombardier laid off 1,600 workers in February alone. Most major cities have cut jobs or laid off workers, while nearly all car manufacturers have significantly reduced their workforce.
Torstar is no exception. In April, the company eliminated 85 positions and cut its operating budget after a drop in advertising revenue.
In January, the country’s unemployment rate rose to 9.4 percent – the highest since August – as the job market lost 212,800 jobs, largely concentrated in Ontario and Quebec.
Layoffs are inevitable in these circumstances, says Chhinzer, and companies often need to cut quickly. In the age of remote work, conference calling may be the easiest way for companies to do this; not every employee can meet with their manager when companies are cutting so many jobs at once.
But this method also creates a “one-sided flow of information,” says Chhinzer, allowing employers to avoid accountability or the opportunity to answer questions from employees looking for a deeper explanation.
“It is depersonalized and ignores our need for more comings and goings,” she said.
Joanne Gallop, who worked at Canopy Growth as a creative director until she was dismissed in a massive Zoom call, was one of hundreds that was cut from the cannabis company in April. She remembers the morning she received the call for the conference call. Her team’s Slack channel was teeming with speculation, she recalls. Co-workers asked themselves out loud: were they being fired? Why were some people invited, but not others?
She joined Zoom’s conference call with 92 other colleagues. The host turned off microphones and cameras when employees entered; whoever was dismissing her, she couldn’t see her face. The meeting ended 50 seconds after it started, Gallop said. She remembers seeing her colleagues’ names falling on the screen.
“I was very angry for a while afterwards. Even though you know you’re just an employee and just a number, it still feels very personal when it happens to you. For a while, I had to stop following their social media accounts, ”she said.
Similar experiences have been described by Bell Media employees, most of whom asked to remain anonymous for this story.
At a TSN radio station in February, an employee described receiving an urgent email from management one morning, telling them to listen to a 9:15 am conference call. They figured they could monitor while the program was on the air.
But while trying to go live, the producers realized that they had lost control of the broadcast and failed to change the song or commercials.
“At that point, we realized what was going on,” said the official.
When they turned on the radio, after receiving the official notification of their shutdown, they heard a song from Green Day coming from the radio: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
In a company email, Bell Media spokesman Marc Choma said the layoffs were all conducted by a manager and an HR representative, and included details of severance pay and benefit packages.
“Any exit at Bell would normally be in person, of course, but COVID’s restrictions meant that meetings had to take place over video or, in some cases, over the phone,” said Choma.
The rules around layoffs vary depending on scope and jurisdiction. Employees affected by mass layoffs, legally defined as 50 or more employees laid off in a four-week period, are generally entitled to special notice and severance pay, says Danny Kastner, labor lawyer and partner at Kastner Lam LLP.
Companies that lay off between 50 and 200 employees at a time can provide up to eight weeks notice or offer a severance package that makes up for the lack of notice. Prior notice is also determined on a case-by-case basis, including factors such as how long the employee has worked at the company, the position he held and his age at the time of dismissal.
But there are exceptions to these standards, says Kastner.
“If the group being terminated constitutes less than 10 percent of employees, for example, many of these rules do not apply. If terminations are taking place because an entire part of the company is shutting down, then again, many of these rules do not apply, ”said Kastner.
Companies regulated by the federal government, which include BCE Inc. and Air Canada, may also receive discretionary exemptions from the Ministry of Labor, says Kastner.
Ideally, employers can and should exceed the minimum required of them by providing reasonable notice, says Chhinzer.
“They should be able to provide some security for the period of unemployment that people will face. Advance notice must be given and employers must prevent layoffs from continuing, ”she says.
She notes that employers who carry out mass layoffs in installments, continuously over a period of weeks, are likely to provoke fear and distrust among employees. This approach will harm not only the employees, but also the employer; employees are rarely more productive or creative when they fear losing their jobs, says Chhinzer.
“When we let layoffs go on, the rumor takes over and has a very demoralizing effect on workers. Even people who may end up keeping their jobs will feel threatened by impending doom, which results in distrust in management, increased absenteeism and decreased productivity among remaining workers. “
Unsurprisingly, unemployment has been a factor in deteriorating mental health during the pandemic. A recent study conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) found that 61 percent of Canadians reported feelings of anxiety and depression after losing their jobs during the pandemic. After the first wave of layoffs, when the blockades started in March, a survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that 30% of recently unemployed respondents feared delaying payment of their rent or mortgage.
Following the layoffs at Bell Media, the company was widely criticized online for abruptly cutting positions shortly after Bell Let’s Talk Day, the company’s awareness campaign to combat stigma around mental illness.
Since leaving CJAD 800, Pole says he has shifted his focus to operating some other radio programs. He too started a podcast.
“I consider myself lucky, because work (at Bell Media) was something I did just for fun,” he said. “I wasn’t sitting there afterwards, worrying about my mortgage.”
But he said that several of his colleagues have since expressed concern about finding work or broadcasting in the future.
“I understand why Bell did this. Business models have changed, the pandemic has taken its toll. I understand, ”said Pole.
“But being nice to people, showing some compassion – it costs nothing. It just adds some human decency. “