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‘Is It Okay to Fire Someone in the Midst of a Pandemic?’

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Well, in short, work has changed. Companies that previously wouldn’t let anyone work from home suddenly have all-remote workforces. People used to being busy might have nothing to do now, while others are working around the clock. With many families cooped up at home together, and all of us facing endless other stressors, employers are having to adjust their expectations. And it’s going to be this way for a while.

It’s not easy to navigate work when everything is different. Here are answers to some of the questions I’ve received this week:

‘Should I fire someone in the midst of a pandemic?’

In the weeks before the outbreak hit, I was preparing to put someone on my team on a performance-improvement plan. We’ve addressed my concerns about her work in performance reviews and will see some improvement for a while, but it keeps slipping, so the improvement plan will be the last step before letting this person go. I had a call with HR two weeks ago about the process and asked if we should wait until after things calm down. HR’s position was that the performance issues still need to be addressed and we should proceed, and “it’s never a good time to be fired.”

I do want to address everything, but also really don’t want to have to fire someone in the middle of a pandemic. I like this employee as a person and would feel absolutely terrible taking away her health care and income right now. Also, my company has started to float around the possibility of potential layoffs, and I’m interviewing somewhere else and might be leaving soon. Should I just … drag out this process so I don’t have to deal with it?

Yeah, you don’t fire someone in the midst of a pandemic — and remove their access to health care! — if you can at all avoid it. HR’s response that “it’s never a good time to be fired” is remarkably tone-deaf; this isn’t like any other time. If they wanted to argue the problems with this employee were severe enough that you had no choice (for example, if she were embezzling money or, say, punched several clients), that would be one thing. But if their argument is just that there’s never a convenient time, I have serious concerns. Not only are there significant ethical issues with firing someone who’s struggling with work quality at a time like this, but it would very likely alarm and demoralize your other employees. People generally don’t want to work for companies that are cavalier about firing people in the hellscape we’re currently dealing with.

Push back with HR. Tell them it’s the wrong decision for your team right now, and you are going to wait until you feel you can ethically move forward.

‘I don’t have anything to do at work now.’

I’m an administrative assistant at a government agency. When the COVID-19 state of emergency was declared, I was told to telework. The problem is, I have little to no work to do! My job involved coordinating meetings, travel, and other activities that our staff is no longer allowed to do. So currently, I spend eight hours in front of my laptop listening to podcasts while organizing electronic files or other busy work and hoping I get an email from someone with a task that stimulates my brain.

My manager is aware of my situation. She said she would ask about special projects for me but none have come up. 

My manager is on the agency’s leadership team and I’m afraid if I bring up how I am feeling, I will be considered difficult at a time when she is busy getting the agency through the emergency at the highest level. I’m the most junior employee she manages, and sometimes think I should just be fortunate to have a job in this uncertain time. Plus, we don’t have much of a relationship; she only really speaks to me if she needs something done. I’ve heard of people being reassigned during a state of emergency, but I don’t have the technical knowledge to do anyone else’s job.

I’ve been feeling very isolated and underutilized. I want to do an honest day’s work, and I don’t know if there is value in saying something that I know likely can’t change. Should I just sit and be patient?

You probably do need to be patient, but you also can talk to your boss again. After some time has passed since your last conversation about projects, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I wanted to touch base about whether there’s anything I can be helping with. I know you’re swamped and I don’t want to be one more thing you have to figure out, but I want to make sure you know I’ve got room on my plate and am ready to do anything anyone needs assistance with.”

Note that this is you offering to be helpful and putting yourself back on her radar; it’s not you saying “solve my workload problem for me,” since the reality is that she might not be able to right now. Sometimes, in situations like this, the most helpful thing you can do is to be available but very, very patient.

Meanwhile, are there projects you can come up with on your own that will be genuinely useful but weren’t high priorities in the past when you were busier? Are there systems you can improve, files or data you can clean up, research you can do, documentation you can create? If you can find your own work — and send your boss a quick email letting her know what you’re working on — that might be the best solution for you both.

‘Is it okay to take time off right now?’

I’m very fortunate to be able to work from home full-time right now in a job that is fairly secure, though we’ve had a handful of layoffs recently. I don’t have kids or anyone I need to care for. I realize I have it easier than a lot of people right now, but I am still mentally exhausted. What are the optics of taking a day or two off sometime in the next month just to do stuff around my house?

My company has an unlimited PTO/sick leave policy, I’ve only officially used about six or seven days since joining the company last June, and I just had to cancel a vacation I’d planned for May. I am not worried so much about my manager approving it as the optics to our senior leadership, who are very much about all hands on deck, everyone pitching in, etc., although my job has not changed much since moving to remote work. What would you advise? 

Take a day or two off.

Obviously, if you’re in the midst of something important and time-sensitive, you’d need to plan around that. But otherwise, paid time off is still part of your compensation — and frankly, it’s in your employer’s best interest for people to be able to recharge and not burn out.

If you’re very worried about the optics, you can raise that with your manager and ask her advice (perhaps noting the weeklong vacation you’ve canceled), but truly, good companies understand that people need breaks.

‘How should I go about following up on a job interview?’

I’m in the interview process for a position within a health-care-focused organization. I’ve had the first interview and received positive feedback from the hiring manager and they have also called my references. 
But now, all nonessential work functions have been halted or postponed, and I imagine the hiring manager may be otherwise preoccupied. Do you recommend reaching out? I’d like to reiterate my interest and just kind of keep myself on her radar in case hiring is taking a back seat.

It makes sense to reach out once so things aren’t left entirely hanging, but you should do it in a way that makes it clear you know hiring is very likely on hold right now, so you don’t sound out of touch with their situation.

Send an email to the hiring manager saying something like, “I know your timeline has probably changed, given the current circumstances, and I’m sure you have plenty of other things you’re juggling right now. But whenever you’re ready to move forward, I’d be glad to resume our conversation — even if it’s down the road.”

Ideally that will prompt her to give you a better sense of what’s going on (for example, they might have a hiring freeze, might be rethinking the position altogether, or might hope to get back to it in a month or two) but even if not, you’ll have reiterated your interest, and that’s about all you can do right now.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘Is It Okay to Fire Someone in the Midst of A Pandemic?’