The Techs-US Chain Saw Massacre
Blood on the keyboards
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
I’m going to talk about the wave of sackings in BigTech that we’ve just seen (I’m not to use euphemistic phrases like ‘layoffs’ or ‘downsizings’. This is sacking people, plain and simple.) and I barely know where to start.
But I have to start somewhere, so we’ll begin with the manner in which it was done. And I’m going to focus on Google (you remember them, right? The ‘Do No Evil’ guys?) because their behaviour seems to encapsulate so much of what’s wrong with the way we run businesses and our economies right now.
I call these sackings (I will allow ‘redundancies’ as it’s called in the more civilised parts of the world e.g. Europe, where we still have some employment rights) ‘the everyday brutality of corporate life’. Being sacked like this is a deeply hurtful, painful and personal experience that can blight someone’s life for a considerable period of time (it causes a long-term reduction in trust, for example). It’s a wound, right? And yet we’ve allowed it to become ‘normalised’, a legitimate business practice, a number-fixing ‘tactic’ taught in business schools, when it should be seen as abnormal, something only done ‘in extremis’.
Even then, it should be done with kindness and compassion. Yet what we see often is the opposite, it is done with callousness and indifference, in the most barbaric way possible. Google have proved no exception to this, sacking people by email and an automatic disabling of their digital access.
Here’s what Justin Moore, a (former) Engineering Manager at Google said on Twitter:
Others who didn’t check their email in the morning found out when their entry passes didn’t work anymore, leaving them confused and stranded by the office security gates. I guess this humiliation has now replaced the ‘walk of shame’, when you had to collect your possession from your desk in a brown box and be escorted out of the office like some sort of criminal. Or maybe Google will organise an event for them all later, like a ritualised shame ceremony where the remaining employees can jeer and wave their entry passes at the poor unfortunates collecting their coffee cups and star wars figurines.
With an unexpected splash of irony, the VP of UX found out because his Google Nest device wasn’t working.
You can’t make this stuff up, can you? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cruel. I mean, he’s a VP and they can’t even be bothered to speak to him but let him be sacked by his own product.
And here’s another
This one really tears at my heart a little. He believed what he was working on was SO important that he was at the office at 4AM, only to be humiliated and effectively be told he’d been wasting his time all along. His report was so important and valuable they weren't even bothered that he wouldn’t finish it. In fact, HE was so important and valuable they couldn’t be bothered to tell him in person. What sacrifices in his personal life did he make, what moments of joy with his family and friends did he forego for Google, only to have it all thrown back in his face like this?
Back to Justin Moore to put it into context.
‘Yeah, but look, we have ‘nap pods’, sweet carts, fuss ball and concierge services. You don’t need to go home, you have it all here. We’re like family!’
Can’t see people falling for that bollocks so easily in future.
It’s The Same Old Song
So why are all these BigTech companies shedding staff? The narrative that’s been put out is that they over-hired in response to the uptick in demand caused by the pandemic and that move digital services hasn’t persisted as strongly as they expected.
They’ve all said this, so it must be true, right?
Hang on, they’ve ALL said this. The same reasons. So they ALL got it wrong and now they ALL have to take the same corrective action.
Does that sound likely?
Tom Goodwin highlights the fact that these layoffs are a small percentage of the expansion that has taken place since the pandemic and, in fact, seems to return to staffing levels of just 6 months ago.
So is this really caused by the recession and tightening that is happening now? Indeed, the long term trends that accelerated demand during the pandemic are still very much in evidence. Digital transformation remains a key strategic priority for businesses (I would say it is essential to their existence). And even if it was, this is hardly an unexpected event and certainly on the horizon 6 months ago.
A more likely explanation is poor strategic planning and bad management. So who is responsible for that? Oh, it’s the CEOs that are rubbing their eyes with onions whilst pressing send on the email to sack their employees.
So maybe it’s the CEOs that should be getting the push, then. Certainly, Ed Zitron makes a string case in his latest substance “Google should fire Sudar Pichai”
Of course, none of these CEOs will be fired. They won’t even lose their bonuses because that’s the whole point of these sackings, to protect their bonuses. They are just trying to make the numbers look good so the share the price goes up, which increases their bonuses and the value of their stock options.
You wouldn’t know that from the business press, though. It’s almost like these companies colluded to come up with a convenient cover story and then fed it to sympathetic journalists in the media they advertise in. I doubt that happened, though. After all, the players all know what the game is, they don’t need to collude.
Well, if they aren’t going to fire the CEO, did they sack the right people? Likely not. Certainly, anecdotal reports seem to suggest a randomness in the selection. At Google a lot of experienced employees were let go. If I was cynical, I’d think it was so they could be replaced with younger, cheaper ones, but I’m not so I don’t think that.
At other organisations, they perhaps used the cruel and capricious stack-ranking or some other groundless basis (managers are provably bad at assessing their staff anyway but that’s a whole other car crash).
Or maybe it was just pressure from activist shareholder TCI, owner by billionaire Sir Christopher Hohn, who wants Google to make even more sackings so he can get even richer.
It’s rotten from top to bottom. You can decide which end TCI are.
The Drugs Don’t Work
Two other points worth making:
Mass sackings like this don’t work because:
The remaining employees are pushed into survivor mode, which destroys trust, psychological safety and all those things that cause strong team work and all that good stuff they say they want - collaboration, creativity, innovation, culture.
Important people are sacked and have to be rehired, often as expensive contractors.
There are inevitable discontinuities in projects and work streams. What if Dan Russell’s report he thought was important enough to get to the office at 4 AM to finish actually WAS really important? What is the cost of the lost opportunity or of repairing the relationship with a customer who has been badly let down?
It damages the brand as an employer and make talent attraction harder and more expensive. Google have put a BIG dent in their brand, people will still go there but be looking for more guarantees and be more protective of their discretionary effort in future.
Also, it’s just wrong to treat people like this. End of.
Our Lips Are Sealed
The extent of the fall-out of this wave of sacking may remain hidden for a few reasons.
Firstly, there’s a strong demand for tech employees across business, as more and more companies become ‘tech’ businesses and digital transformation progresses. I suspect these people will find jobs quite quickly. In fact, some employers like Allstate Insurance in Chicago are actively recruiting them as remote employees.
Secondly, the business press isn’t going to spend too long looking for the downsides. Their audience wants relentless positivity and that’s what they serve up. Expect more glowing CEO profiles on the ‘Titans of Tech’ that have instigated all this. Don’t want to upset the advertisers, do we?
Thirdly, there is a noticeable trend of sacked employees putting up positive posts on social media about how wonderful their employer was. Why? One says ‘I work in social media so I know what you post stays there forever. There’s no point in burning bridges, Big Tech is quite a small world’. Even our ex-Googler Justin Moore goes on to say:
I must admit, I’m quite torn on this. It makes sense and you absolutely have to look after No.1 in this situation and it seems to work, soliciting support and offers of help. After all, no-one wants to associate with the angry guy raging at the moon.
However, you also have to acknowledge and process your feelings. I wish I had been rather clearer to my former employers about how I felt, it would have been better for me longer term. It’s also a common response of an abused person to be grateful to your abuser and to blame yourself for the abuse. Maybe I’m making too much of it but I am concerned that people try to ignore or bury the damage. That doesn’t end well.
And also, the bosses will never know. The gulf between their perception of what’s happening and what’s really going on will remain (which is just how they like it, of course). So we’ll never acknowledge the problem and the cycle will continue. That’s how brutality get’s normalised in the first place.
So what’s the way out? I return again to the wise words of Buckminster Fuller
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
It’s wise to be aware of the faults of the existing system so you don’t recreate them but the real work is to build the new model. I will try to focus more on that from now on (but some super-annuated idiot will go and do something that makes my blood boil and then …)
Don’t forget, you can get always more of ME - and IN COLOUR! - by watching Work Punks, where Ben Simpson, Paul Jansen and me stick the needle into existing work practices.
Catch the first 30-minutes of fun NOW!