How to ethically re-hire employees after lay-offs and furloughs

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With the COVID-19 pandemic showing signs of retreat as vaccination efforts expand, intact businesses look to the future. Many companies coped with the pandemic economy by laying off or furloughing employees. As business picks up, what is the best way to bring back workers?

Once a business knows that it needs more staff, it should proceed with care to serve both the needs of the business and fairness toward its past employees.

1. Collect information

Determine and document how many people you will need and in what roles. Pull together all the available documentation about the lay-offs or furloughs. Include releases, emails, job descriptions, notes, compensation figures, contact information, and personnel files. These materials will help in planning re-hires.

If managers dismissed employees, find out if they made any promises to the employees they handled about being hired back. Lay-offs are stressful, and supervisors may have reassured employees to reduce their discomfort. However, comforting statements could have legal consequences if workers rely on being hired back. If you determine that managers made such statements (or you know you did), check in with an attorney before proceeding.

2. Plan for re-hires or returns

If you had a pre-existing furlough or re-hire plan, now is the time to review it. If the plan was shared with former employees, remember that it’s important to act according to the plan to avoid potential disputes.

If you did not have a plan prior to lay-offs, you can start now. Using the information gathered in the last step, make a detailed list of the roles you need filled. If these are consistent with prior jobs, you can use existing job descriptions. If you are creating new jobs or consolidating some roles, start by recording the objective business reasons behind your change from your prior staffing plan. Then create new descriptions, including the actual (rather than aspirational) skills or knowledge needed for each. Determine the pay and benefits you will offer.

If the roles you need to fill match your prior staffing plan, then you can look to the people who formerly worked in those roles. If you are not hiring back the same number of people, select a fair order to invite prior employees to return. Use objective measurements, such as seniority rank or quality scores, and consistently apply those measurements.

If your job needs have changed, consider inviting your entire class of former workers to apply for the new roles. Some past employees may have retrained or acquired new skills during their time away. Remember that your new positions should reflect your company’s objective and documented needs and ask for the skills actually required for the role. Otherwise, you may unintentionally exclude a former employee who would be ideal for a new role.

3. Avoid assumptions

If your business cannot afford the salaries it paid pre-pandemic, do not assume that a good employee would reject a lower amount. The job market is not what it was, and a former worker may be satisfied with what you are able to pay now.

Similarly, if you have heard that a former employee found another job, do not assume that they do not wish to return to your business. The new job may not be satisfying or the pay may be inadequate. Give each person the opportunity to consider what you have available rather than passing them over.

By planning carefully, documenting fully, and acting fairly, you will be able to staff to your company’s needs as the economy recovers. Bringing back former employees will give you the benefit of experience and shorter onboarding, while the employees who have stayed in place will appreciate welcoming their co-workers.