Layoffs are bad enough; botching them is worse Melanie Baker October 29, 2015 Columns, Featured, M-Theory The other day, one of my colleagues popped up on chat and said, “Got a minute?” He had a quick question about the blog, and the conversation took all of 30 seconds. Seems odd that those three words would just about give me a heart attack, doesn’t it? I mentioned the exchange and my reaction to a friend. She understood and told me what her panic attack symptoms would be under those circumstances. I know a lot of people who could do the same. Y’see, we’ve all been laid off from tech companies, some of us more than once. We’ve been survivors of more rounds of layoffs than we can count, and been the ones laying off our teams. Some lucky ones have been on both ends of the equation. So please refrain from asking me if I’ve got a minute. Don’t walk up behind me and put your hand on my shoulder. I’d also really prefer to never, ever come into your office. Obviously, in tech we much prefer to share good news. Shopify’s expanding in Waterloo and opening a 300-person office. Aeryon Labs is set to double in size after a $60 million investment. There are so many tech companies born and growing in the region that good news comes pretty regularly. Searching Communitech News for “layoffs,” though? Few results, and nearly everything was about life after BlackBerry. If that was the only company in Waterloo Region that had ever had layoffs or gone under, our tech formula would be a globally lauded bible. The reality is that a lot of new businesses fail in the first year, somewhere between 50 and 90 per cent. Tech isn’t excluded from that. On top of that number are established companies that stumble. The bigger the company, the more rounds of layoffs and other “rightsizing” happen over time. In addition to my colleague’s ill-chosen words, this has been on my mind because of Twitter’s recent and much-publicized layoffs. We started hearing around Thanksgiving that cuts of 300-plus people were coming (along with Jack Dorsey’s return as CEO). The layoffs happened. Twitter brass made some big and classic mistakes. The kinds of mistakes that torpedo morale, induce cynicism, and over time lead to psychological tics like myself and my friends have. Dorsey’s firing memo was jargon-tastic. For some reason management still seem to think that using obfuscating language will soften the blow. Or maybe there are legal necessities. I don’t know. But they could have done much better. These are people you’re dealing with. Real humans. Grownups, who get the industry and have likely been working for a while and are pretty smart. (Presumably that’s why you hired them.) It’s OK to give them bad news like grownups. Clear, honest, factual. They can take it. Transparency has unfortunately become a buzzword, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. In addition to that, management and all those involved in executing layoffs/firings need to co-ordinate really, really well. Otherwise you can end up with situations like this. One of my layoffs was bungled nearly that badly. I almost felt more contempt for the incompetence than panic about losing my job. No one deserves that. That was not “the utmost respect.” I don’t know what or how that came to pass, but if you take a peek at the comments in the article above (I know, but just this once), you’ll see that that isn’t an isolated incident. I would argue that how layoffs are done is as important as what is provided to the people losing their jobs. Companies can post memos and press releases to their hearts’ content about “utmost respect” and “gratitude.” What speaks loudest is what you actually do when what you have to do is really hard and really crappy. Ideally, tell people in person and individually (where and when possible). Co-ordinate so people aren’t blindsided. (We learned about many rounds of BlackBerry layoffs via social media.) Avoid making people do a walk of shame. Unless you have absolutely no choice, be more generous than the legal minimum in severance, benefits extension, etc. There are a lot more, but no one should be learning how to do this from me… Also, remember that people still work at the company. It’s going to suck to be at work That Day, and to come in The Next Day. Acknowledge that. Don’t insult those people with jargon, either. Tell them as much as you can, and know that any blanks will get filled in with rumour and speculation. (Those who know the least will yak the most.) Remember that, while you didn’t have to do the dirty work, those who did are also humans. Once I talked to a couple of HR people who’d been at the company three weeks and three days respectively when layoffs happened. Not knowing anyone yet made it marginally “easier.” Unsurprisingly, the survivors avoided them like the plague afterward. What a fun work environment for all. I know, we go on about how fast-paced tech life is, and at a startup there are always too many things to get done. (And, for a tech company that’s going downhill, an ever-decreasing number of bodies to do them.) It can become nigh impossible to do things the right way, including letting staff go, even when they’ve become your friends. Entrepreneurship is a big gamble, and tech requires taking risks. Not all of those are going to pay off in perpetuity. We sign up for it anyway. But when it goes downhill, and it will for a lot of us, companies can make choices that potentially affect reputations and careers for a very long time. If you do it wrong, even really expensive bandages aren’t going to fix it. Photo: food lines by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.