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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Big Tech Is Really Bad at Firing People

For one Google worker it was when the light on the card reader outside their New York office flashed red, rather than green. For a staffer at Twitter, it was when their password was changed remotely, and an unusual gray screen showed their company Macbook had been locked. For Zac Bowling, a near-eight-year veteran of Google, it was being logged out of all his devices.

Tech companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers over the past few months in an industry-wide downsizing that executives have blamed on over-hiring during the pandemic. Almost without fail, they’ve handled it horribly, with casual brutality and tone-deaf displays—such as at Microsoft, which hosted a private Sting concert at Davos the night before firing 10,000 people.

The disparity between Big Tech’s high spending and the callous way in which they have let go of their staff has tarnished their reputation as good employers and reminded staff that their needs are subordinate to those of shareholders. 

“Finding out via email or auto-shut-out that you have lost your job is brutal—and it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Gemma Dale, a lecturer at Liverpool Business School and author of a number of books, including on employee well-being and flexible work. “It also totally disconnects with what many of these organizations say about how much they value their people.” 

Bowling eventually learned that he had been let go from Google via an email two hours after he was logged out of all his work systems on the morning of January 20. His manager had to use LinkedIn to reach him to apologize, because his access to Google Meet and other internal company communication tools had been cut. 

It was entirely unexpected—Bowling had gotten a new batch of business cards made in December. Others had just received, or were expecting, glowing performance reviews but were instead given severance terms. “It caught everybody off guard,” Bowling says. “It didn’t seem like they were going after low performers, or they were going after specific projects. Someone likened it to if someone had a tommy gun, and they were just shooting from the hip.” 

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People who are still at the company aren’t sure if they’re next. Bowling said that workers who still have access to the company’s systems told him 8,000 names have disappeared from employee rolls. But Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has said it’s letting go of 12,000 people worldwide. “Everybody’s saying goodbye, just in case, because they don’t know if they’re going to get everything cut off,” Bowling says. “It’s killing morale. It was just handled terribly.”

Layoffs seem to have come as a surprise to employees at several Big Tech companies, whose failure to communicate has aggravated the anguish among those now out of work.

At Salesforce, 8,000 employees were laid off in January, but co-CEO Mark Benioff reportedly ducked questions at an all-hands meeting meant to address the cuts. Bowling says his now-ex-Google colleagues also resented that they hadn’t been able to ask any questions of the executives who had let them go. At some companies—notably Twitter, where Elon Musk has cut whole teams as part of a 50 percent reduction in head count—the firings seem arbitrary.

“It’s personally embarrassing for myself to have to explain to friends and family members why I’m getting fired,” says one former Meta employee who was fired as part of the company’s layoffs in late 2022 and requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing her future job prospects. 

But it isn’t just the suddenness. It’s also the dehumanizing way that the announcements were made, which rankles staff who have been let go. When it finally came, the email telling Bowling he was being laid off from Google was “legalese,” he says, and was signed off by the company’s vice president without any salutation. 

“No ‘sincerely,’ no ‘sorry,’ nothing,” he says. “It was written by a lawyer, so there was no implied guilt or anything in there. It was so cold. Everything about it was so cold.” 

The company has historically treated employees fairly well, even when they exit, according to Bowling. “This layoff was so different from the culture of how people leave the company,” he says.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. 

But for Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, the gap between how tech companies portray themselves and how they act was always there.

“It would be fair to say I’m shocked but not surprised,” Schurman says. “I’m old enough to have been brought up in a so-called 20th-century organization, where you could say workers are viewed as expendable commodities.”

Attitudes toward staff have also worsened during the pandemic, according to Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Manchester Business School. Remote working created a greater separation between managers and their employees. “There was less face-to-face contact, and much more of their communications were virtual,” he says. “That could create a situation where you don’t develop a close relationship with your employees, if you’re a line manager.”

Some tech workers say that they’d already come to realize that tech companies won’t necessarily return their loyalty.

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“Honestly, a couple of years ago, I started changing my mindset about the companies I work for,” says Alejandra Hernandez, a recruiting program manager at Meta who was laid off in November after working for the company for a year. “I’m looking at it as, ‘This is a business, you hired me to do certain work.’” Hernandez points out that being employed in California means she’s employed at will and can be terminated at any time—which helped recalibrate her thinking.

Hernandez wasn’t too upset about the way that she and her colleagues were laid off by email. “I would much rather be emailed than have someone try to butter me up on a Zoom call about letting me go,” she said.

Even for those who have survived the layoffs, the past few months have acted as a sharp reminder that their well-being will never come before executives’ fiduciary duties and that, when times get tough, their positions are vulnerable.

“We were all deluded into thinking these tech companies were treating people as human beings,” says Schurman. “But I think we’ve found out that it was only possible at the time, and as soon as times get tough—boom: The boss is back.”

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