There has been scepticism across the industry as to the motives behind an unspecified number of lay-offs and permanent branch closures by the Spicerhaart group.
The way the redundancies were handled - at least one senior negotiator says she was fired at 5.45pm on Friday with no assurance she would be paid - has been described as “inhumane” and has generated national newspaper publicity.
A statement by group chief executive Paul Smith to an industry publication suggested some responsibility for the move fell on government for not extending business rate relief to all estate agency offices; the statement also said other offices in his group that had been closed only temporarily had relocated staff to working from their homes, from which they can still give advice and assistance to customers.
But many industry commentators took a critical view of the issue.
Jon Cooke, chief executive of eProp, sent an open letter to the industry citing the Spicerhaart actions and calling for agency bosses "to show some humanity and not run to the hills."
A veteran agent on Twitter under the pseudonym Mr Rutley wrote: “Spicerhaart cull lots of jobs and offices under the premise that it is due to covid19. Prudent and decisive management, or opportunistic taking advantage of the times to do what they would have had to do anyway? Flies in face of government efforts to preserve jobs.”
Russell Quirk, now a partner in a Keller Williams franchise, wrote: “The words of Paul Smith coming back to haunt him - ‘hundreds of people will lose their jobs and the loyalty they’ve shown to their companies will count for nothing.’
The owner of an estate agency, on Twitter under the name Smile Please, wrote an expletive-laden tweet suggesting that the laid-off employees deserved sincere condolences but were at least away from the management and company concerned.
At about the same time on Friday as Haart announced sackings, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that government grants (not loans) would cover 80 per cent of the salary of retained workers, up to £2,500 a month.
The scheme, open to any employer in the country, would cover the cost of wages backdated to March 1 and would be open before the end of April for at least three months.
Sunak says there will be no limit on the funding available for the scheme, and the government says it will pay to support as many jobs as needed.
Meanwhile the case of Amanda Haynes, a single mother who was a senior negotiator at Haart’s Camberwell office in London, has reached national prominence.
She has told The Guardian that the method of her sacking was “callous and inhumane” after she was fired at 5.45pm on Friday with no assurances she would still be paid.
She claims she was given two-minutes notice for a conference call in which she was told her contract was to be cancelled immediately.
“My area manager had actually told me earlier in the day that I was doing so well they wanted me to cover the manager role at the Brixton branch from Monday with a view to seeing if I could be promoted to be the manager there full time” Haynes told The Guardian.
She said her team sold three properties last week and the company had started putting plans in place to do video viewings of properties.
During the call telling them of their sackings, she claims that none of the staff were allowed to ask questions. “Others in the company have told her via WhatsApp they had been locked out of the computers without even being told they had lost their jobs” the Guardian says.
The newspaper quotes her saying: “It’s not really even about losing our jobs because we understand there is going to be casualties and the property market is one that is going to be affected by this, so we understand that.
“But the way they have done it so coldly and inhumanely and unprofessionally is disgraceful.
“In a time like this, when people are meant to be pulling together and they aren’t even giving us two minutes notice and there isn’t even a ‘thank you’ or a ‘sorry’ or ‘rest assured you will all be looked after’ after all the money we made for them.
“They didn’t need to do it like this. They could have done it in a way that was kind to their staff.”