Why WW’s Group Firings On Zoom Were Unethical, Terrible PR And Bad For Business


WW International—formerly and still popularly known as Weight Watchers and WW on Nasdaq—made headlines this week but not in a good way. The company terminated many employees via group Zoom calls. This is one of the most callous and disgraceful ways a company can fire an employee, and the negative PR it generates is also bad for business.

Here’s why.

The ethics of firings by group Zoom

It’s not clear how many employees WW fired via group Zoom. It was enough, however, for the company to view individual conversations as unwieldy. Nick Hotchkin, the chief financial officer for WWI, told The New York Times, “It wasn’t practical to have all of the conversations be one on one.”

When I first learned about the story, I thought about the humiliation of seeing and being seen by my colleagues in this context. I then learned that the Zoom communications were audio-only, so public shaming or embarrassment weren’t issues. No one apparently knew who else was on the call.

But it’s also the case that the employees weren’t allowed to ask questions during the call. CFO Hotchkin did say that the company encouraged employees to follow up with their supervisors after the calls, but giving someone the worst news of their career on a call and then not allowing them to respond is the height of insensitivity.

A page from George Clooney’s book

A scene in Jason Reitman’s film Up in the Air illustrates why some companies prefer to shirk their responsibilities to employees. Ryan Bingham, a career-transitions consultant played by George Clooney, travels to St. Louis to fire people in person. The reactions of the fired employees feel authentic for a good reason: the director filmed men and women who had recently been laid off. Reitman told them to look into the camera, pretend it was the person who had fired them, and say the things they said or wished they’d said at the time.

Firing employees by a group Zoom call avoids the uncomfortable situation. Ryan Bingham faced. It was easier and faster for WW to use group Zoom calls to achieve its goal of a reduction in force (a euphemism the late George Carlin would have had a field day with). But the easier route isn’t always the right route. Group Zoom firings are a perfect example of how to disrespect loyal employees.

I also have to wonder what affect the group Zoom calls had on the managers doing the firing. Later in Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham’s company decides to cut costs by using videoconferencing to let people go. Bingham’s younger colleague Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick, is called upon to do the job, and although she is spared from having uncomfortable conversations in person, the virtual approach turns out to be hurtful for both the fired employees and ultimately to Keener herself. As Plato suggested in his works Gorgias and The Republic, committing an unjust act is worse than being on the receiving end of it.

Ethical leadership means treating all employees, especially loyal ones, with respect. WW blew it.

The optics of firing by group Zoom

It’s not just unethical to let your employees go with a group Zoom call. It’s also bad for your company’s image. WW prides itself on being a brand of integrity. Its most famous board member and investor, after all, is Oprah Winfrey, a celebrity who built her own brand on trustworthiness. I can’t imagine Oprah signed off on firings by group Zoom. It’s not consistent with who she is.

I predict that Oprah will publicly renounce this heartless cost-saving measure. That would be right for its own sake. It would also spare her from a “silence is consent” response from the millions of people who have rightly viewed her as an ethical leader.

To be clear: it is not necessarily unethical for a company to reduce its workforce. The ethical problem is not what WW did. It is how they did it.

Ethically challenged leadership is bad for business

Ideally, companies should care when anyone in the organization, C-suite executive or not, does something unethical or creates negative publicity. These two forms of conduct are wrong for their own sake. But it turns out that they’re also bad for business.

Firing employees with a Zoom call ”will have a negative impact on their ability to attract, hire and retain top talent in the future,” says Nora Burns, CEO of The Leadership Experts, Inc. Burns is right. If several companies are vying for your knowledge, skill and character, would your first choice be working for a company that made international headlines for treating its employees with contempt?

In WW’s defense

I am living proof that WW has had great success in helping people manage their weight. During the year leading up to my wedding, I attended Weight Watchers (as it was then known) meetings regularly and lost 28 pounds. I’m one of millions of people around the world whom the company has benefitted significantly.

It must be difficult to lead a company whose stock reached a high of over $100 a share in June 2018 but plummeted below $20 less than a year later. To keep up with the times, the company shifted its marketing focus from losing weight to promoting health. Weekly weigh-ins, once a WW hallmark, were no longer required. It was that accountability that was a big motivator in my own weight loss, however.

Now WW is trying to balance its traditional mission of helping people lose weight with the new one of enhancing wellness. That balancing act can’t be easy to do. Yet CFO Hotchkin says that 2020 started off well. “We had introduced a new program and done a multicity tour with Oprah Winfrey, which had a great impact on the business,” he told Times reporter Julie Creswell.

What WW’s CEO should do now

It takes only one major misstep to undo all of the progress that WW has made. CEO Mindy Grossman can evince high-character leadership by apologizing for using group Zoom calls to reduce its workforce. Even if letting a lot of employees go was the only way to save the company, the way she did it (and it’s fair to assign the ultimate responsibility of this to her) was wrong.

It’s not too late to redeem the company, but Grossman must act quickly.



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Trupen Patel

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