It was probably inevitable: As an ultimate reminder to workers that they are quickly disposable and easily disposed of, some companies are resorting to standardized emails to inform people that they no longer have a job.
The pandemic has taught many companies that their workers can be efficient and productive working from outside of the office, and a good number of employers have embraced remote work as a new norm. Recent rounds of layoffs in the high tech sector are now showing us what happens when remote work meets the human resources function.
Among the more well-publicized examples, we have Google (12,000 layoffs) using standardized emails to notify employees of terminations, as reported by Kristopher J. Brooks for CBS News (link here):
Jeremy Joslin spent two decades as a software engineer for Google only to be laid off last week along with thousands of his co-workers. The way the company notified him was “cold,” Joslin said.
…Joslin and other ex-employees at Google said they received notice of their dismissal via an email sent to their personal address, which struck them as insensitive. Receiving no advance warning of what would be their last day at the company added further insult to injury, they said.
And then there’s Amazon (18,000 layoffs) using the same approach, as reported by Ariel Zilber for the New York Post (link here):
Fired Amazon workers griped about the e-retail giant using email to inform them they were no longer needed by the company, according to a published report.
At least five employees who were laid off Wednesday said they received a cold-blooded missive from management….
“Unfortunately, your role has been eliminated,” wrote Beth Galetti, the top executive at Amazon’s human resources department, in one of the emails.
“You are no longer required to perform any work on Amazon’s behalf effective immediately.”
Furthermore, although it was “merely” part of an emailed announcement of planned layoffs and not an individual layoff notification, PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada deserves a negative shoutout for closing her rambling missive by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the challenges of leadership, as reported by Aimee Picchi for CBS News, link here:
I am reminded in moments like this, of something Martin Luther King said, that “the ultimate measure of a [leader] is not where [they] stand in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where [they] stand in times of challenge and controversy.”
From exit parades to inboxes
Back in 2011, I noted the popularity of an inhumane, in-person mode for conducting layoffs, known in some circles as the “exit parade.” Typically, the about-to-be-terminated employee is directed to report promptly to the human resources office, where they are told that this is their last day of work and provided with any necessary documents accompanying the separation. They may be allowed to return to their desk to gather their belongings, sometimes under the watchful escort of a uniformed security officer, in full view of their co-workers.
Quoting from one of my law review articles, I called this practice a degradation ceremony, appearing “similar in nature, though admittedly not in degree, to archaic military disciplinary proceedings where transgressors are marched past other soldiers under armed guard to face their punishment. Yet in the case of the dismissed employee, her sole ‘transgression’ may have been being on the payroll at a time when profits were not high enough.”
Well, at least in terms of the personal touch, the exit parade may seem like a warm and fuzzy approach to terminations compared to how some managers and executives are hiding behind their screens to inform workers that they are no longer needed.
Evading responsibility, accountability, and, well, humanity
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times critical of these digital termination notices (link here), journalist Elizabeth Spiers wrote:
As someone who’s managed people in newsrooms and digital start-ups and has hired and fired people in various capacities for the past 21 years, I think this approach is not just cruel but unnecessary. It’s reasonable to terminate access to company systems, but delivering the news with no personal human contact serves only one purpose: letting managers off the hook. It ensures they will not have to face the shock and devastation that people feel when they lose their livelihoods. It also ensures the managers won’t have to weather any direct criticism about the poor leadership that brought everyone to that point.
Again: “not just cruel but unnecessary.” Given a second byte of the apple, so to speak, it appears that certain denizens of corporate America have continued to deliver hard news in an impersonal and cold way, only this time, it’s as easy as hitting the return key.