As I See It: On the Chopping Block
February 20, 2023 Victor Rozek
I remember the first time I witnessed someone getting fired. He was called into his manager’s office where a short, occasionally animated, conversation ensued. By the time he got back to his desk, two security guards took his badge and keys, handed him a cardboard box, told him to pack his belongings, and escorted him out of the building. No goodbyes, no parting words, no well wishes from colleagues. Though he had worked there for some years, in the end he was as disposable as a used Kleenex.
I thought about him recently as Tech sector headlines reported massive layoffs. Nearly 220,000 tech jobs eliminated. Last year alone, about 1,000 companies jettisoned some 160,000 workers. And this past January, just under 60,000 additional jobs were lost. Lives upended, dreams delayed, careers interrupted, anxieties activated. The world can quickly become a cruel place for those with no source of income.
We’ve invented a lot of euphemisms for getting fired over the years: laid off, sacked, dismissed, removed, terminated, released, axed, discharged, downsized, rightsized, and separated, to name a few. But when companies are firing people in five figure increments (10,000 at Microsoft, 12,000 at Google, and 18,000 at Amazon), they need a computerized version to replace all those bloodless terms. Welcome to the era of remote layoffs, the perfect melding of efficiency and cruelty.
Tens of thousands received termination notices by email, or during Zoom meetings, or other assorted methods of digital communication. Remote workers awoke to discover they were denied access to company computers. Others arrived at work only to be denied entrance. H-1B visa holders faced an additional challenge beyond unemployment – deportation. If they couldn’t find a new job within 60 days, their visas would become invalid and they would have to leave the country. To borrow an arcane social media disparagement: They had all been, literally and figuratively, unfriended.
But not to worry, upper management is planning to share the pain. Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai said that all roles above the senior vice president level will witness a “very significant reduction in their annual bonus.” Well, that certainly seems equitable: 12,000 people have no job, while Pichai has to make do with a smaller bonus. And just how many “roles above senior vice president” are there? Not all that many I suspect. Still, the hardship of being separated from a portion of one’s bonus cannot be exaggerated. Absent this fringe benefit, poor Pichai will have to scrape by on his $34.5 million annual salary. Can a GoFundMe appeal be far behind?
Besides, bonus manipulation is a corporate slight-of-hand. If, a year from now, Google rebounds – and let’s be clear, it’s disingenuous to plead economic hardship when your revenue exceeded $283 billion last year – Pichai will be heralded for his managerial wizardry and awarded an even bigger bonus to make up for his losses.
Although the market is now flooded with highly skilled developers and software engineers some jobs remain safer than others. Former Microsoft vice president of human resources Chris Williams, writing for Yahoo Finance, explains the culling process.
On one end of the culling continuum, the people most likely to keep their jobs are the ones closest to the company’s profit centers. “The basic rule is the closer your job is to the most profitable activities of the company, the lower your risk of layoff,” says Williams.
On the other end are the expendable contract employees. “One of the main reasons companies use temporary or contract workers is for this very contingency,” says Williams. (That, and they also don’t want to pay benefits, which Williams tactfully neglected to mention.) “They want to remain flexible in case of a downturn. As such, contract employees are usually the first out when the tide turns.” Google and Amazon must require a great deal of flexibility because over half of their workforce are either temps or contractors.
Remote layoffs and other human disposal events are predicated on the irrational, destructive expectation of perpetual growth; the Wall Street requirement that – in order to be considered successful – a company must swell in size like a steroidal tick while unfailingly increasing its quarterly profitability. And when profitability stalls, employees magically morph from assets into expenses and are shed like unwanted cat hair.
But the reality is that they are neither. Assets and expenses are abstractions. Assets, in an employee, include a wide range of skills and qualities such as knowledge, expertise, experience, commitment, persistence, and adaptability. Expenses are building maintenance and toilet paper purchases. Absent during remote layoffs is any concern for the wellbeing and vulnerability of actual human beings. Absent is any authentic expression of gratitude, appreciation, and acknowledgment. Absent is any trace of respect.
The reality is that only one thing grows without limit, and that is cancer, and if cancer is not treated, it kills its host. Perpetual growth is the same misguided notion that justifies clear cutting the last of the native forests, dumping millions of tons of plastic in the oceans, and otherwise polluting an already badly ailing planet. Profit over people; profit over the fragile conditions that underpin life itself. Profit fueled by the expectation of endless, unsustainable, self-destructive growth.
When Wall Street analysts disapprove, it’s rare that a company – even companies that are wildly successful – will treat employees as human beings rather than balance sheet abstractions. But there are striking exceptions.
In 2011, Nokia was undergoing a restructuring process. Roughly 18,000 people’s lives would be impacted. The company didn’t wait until the last moment and email termination notices. It gave affected employees a full year’s notice, and offered them a range of options going forward. Some would be assisted finding other jobs within the company. Alternately, the company would help people find jobs with other corporations, or start their own businesses, or procure whatever education they needed to advance their careers.
It was a responsible, compassionate attempt to mitigate what otherwise would have been a far more stressful experience for thousands of people.
The Tech sector would do well to learn from Nokia’s experience, one that inspires trust, loyalty, and gratitude rather than resentment and pain.
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Awesome article. Having 47 years in the IT industry, this is something I learned at my first computer operating job in 1977.
I started in June of 1976 and the company (privately owned) was building a new “Divisional” office in Houston and the president of the company kept telling us folks in Michigan that the company was not moving to Texas. Then in January of 1977, the president told the AP department to stop or slow down payments to Michigan vendors. He was still assuring us that the company was not moving.
Then two weeks before April 1st we were told that April 1 was our last day. The company was in fact closing the Michigan division and moving to the new building in Houston Texas. Wished it was a April Fools Day joke. But it wasn’t. The joke was on all the Michigan employees.
Companies have never cared about the employees. That is why we needed Federal labor laws (including child labor) and Unions to stop the most nasty things that companies used to do to people. Does anyone in their right mind think we would have the holidays or benefits that most workers have without Unions? Or even the pay scales that we enjoy today?
Your article was perfectly to the point related to the short sightedness of Wall Street. I also thought the Nokia example was a perfect example of what a company who is supposed to be part of the community should do every time.
Keep up the insightful articles.
Really enjoyed your article – As I see it: On The Chopping Block! Having been in the software development side of things for over 40 years, most of that in RPG, I do wonder if someone will be looking to put me out to pasture at some point. My goal is to be the one who determines when and how that happens. I am working in the public sector, which affords me some protection but alas, a change a couple of levels above me could make the future quite different.
I really appreciate your insight and how companies can exercise more compassion for those they “use” in their climb to the proverbial top.
Keep up the good work! Those of us in the RPG / Old School trenches appreciate your willingness to help us stay relevant!
I got my start on the S36 back in 1988. I have been the recipient of the reduction in workforce twice in the time period. I will be outta here in a few months so I will not have to deal with it anymore!