The massive wave of layoffs is giving tech workers a brutal wake-up call about the reality of work
Dehumanizing. Gut-wrenching. Slap in the face. Betrayed. Tech workers are using all sorts of emotional phrases to describe the layoff wave that has gripped the industry and become the talk of the business world.
"I'm shocked and hurt and still processing," Katie Olaskiewicz, a former human-truths strategist at Google, wrote on LinkedIn last week shortly after 12,000 Google employees were let go. "It's difficult when you feel betrayed, but there isn't really an individual you can direct your anger towards."
She added: "You can work for one of the most esteemed employers in the world and still be reduced to a dollar sign."
Over the past two weeks, a total of 40,000 employees have been laid off from Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, a nightmare come true for tech workers. On LinkedIn and other social platforms, thousands of now former employees are lamenting the cutthroat ways in which they were let go. The feelings of hurt and betrayal are no surprise. For years, the tech industry cultivated an attitude among its workers that their employment was something more than transactional — that they were part of a family working toward a common goal.
The tech layoffs have been starkly different from Wall Street, which has in recent months instituted its own rounds of job cuts. More than 15,000 employees have been laid off from the likes of Goldman Sachs, BlackRock, Citi, and Morgan Stanley, with employees being swiftly and brutally shown the door. But unlike in tech, banking jobs are ruled by two factors: achievement and the cyclical nature of the markets. There are no illusions that these jobs are anything more than a business arrangement.
And now, as the first sustained wave of layoffs in two decades hits the tech industry, workers — both those who have been let go and their coworkers who remain behind — are confronting that harsh truth: The workplace isn't the same thing as a family.
Tech spent years playing up the 'family' image — before shattering it
The idea of economic precarity isn't foreign to Silicon Valley; hundreds of tech startups crash and burn every year. But in the past decade, some tech giants started to promise their employees something in addition to a feeling of purpose — a sense of security.
At Google, the company calls its workers Googlers, an identifier that marks them as not just employees but also ingrained pieces of the organization. In its early days, Google ushered in the era of sprawling tech campuses filled with every conceivable amenity, where employees could work all day and into the night without needing to leave (and some didn't). And the company long encouraged employees to bring their "whole self to work," enmeshing their lives with their jobs.
The early days of Facebook, now Meta, were defined by disruption. But by the 2010s, it had reached adolescence, becoming a tech giant in its own right. At its expansive Menlo Park, California, campus, employees could take group fitness classes at one of the company's on-site gyms and eat breakfast at one of several cafés. Facebook was voted the nation's best place to work in 2018, in part because it encouraged people to bring their "authentic selves" to work. The outward perception was that Facebook's workforce felt happy, was successful, and had achieved the perfect work-life balance.
But cracks in the veneer began to show: first, in the business itself, which seemed to experience scandal after scandal, then with its internal culture. "The pressure for us to act as though everything is fine and that we love working here is so great that it hurts," one young female employee said during a 2019 company town hall. "There shouldn't be this pressure to pretend to love something when I don't feel this way."
Now, over the course of a few months, the same companies who helped foster the family mindset in Silicon Valley have been the ones to crush the illusion. The software giant Salesforce was founded on co-CEO Marc Benioff's belief in the Hawaiian term "ohana," which represents family bonds. When it came time to let 10% of his workforce go earlier this month, he evoked the notion of the workplace family. "The employees being affected aren't just colleagues. They're friends. They're family," he wrote in a letter to employees — and he likened the job cuts to colleagues dying.
At Meta, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he mistimed some big investments in the company — chiefly, spending on the metaverse. In November, the company cut 11,000 employees, about 13% of its workforce, in what employees called "Hunger Games"-style layoffs. Even when announcing the layoffs, Zuckerberg fell back on the family language, thanking employees who were let go for putting "your heart and soul into this place."
When 12,000 Googlers' jobs were cut — one while on maternity leave with a 4-month-old at home and another who was eight months pregnant — they described feeling shocked and betrayed. "It's hard for me to believe that after 20 years at Google I unexpectedly find out about my last day via an email," one software engineer tweeted. "What a slap in the face. I wish I could have said goodbye to everyone face to face." Another laid-off Google employee said: "This also just drives home that work is not your life, and employers — especially big, faceless ones like Google — see you as 100% disposable. Live life, not work."
The toxicity of the 'family' idea
The idea of workplace-as-family sounds idyllic on paper. A workplace family is loyal. There's a baked-in sense of trust. There's community. But blurring the boundary between work and family can come at a cost.
In their 2021 book, "Out of Office," the journalists Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen argue against the work-as-family archetype. "You already have a family, chosen or otherwise," they write. "And when a company uses that rhetoric, it is reframing a transactional relationship as an emotional one."
They add: "It might feel enticing, but it is deeply manipulative and, more often than not, a means to narrativize paying people less to do more work. Family evokes not just a closeness but a devotion and a lasting bond, infused with sacrifice: family comes first."
Treating an organization as a family can ultimately "compel workers to ignore their own exploitation," they say, and the result can subtly make workers feel like they shouldn't request time off, ask for more money, or raise complaints about bad behavior in the workplace. In other words, what on its face should be a straightforward relationship becomes mired in a morass of guilt.
Eden King, a professor at Rice University who specializes in industrial and organizational psychology, said some companies preaching the family mentality were using it as a smoke screen to extract more from their employees.
"Sometimes leaders use this sort of language, like, 'We're all part of the same family,' in a way that's inauthentic and, in fact, makes people disengage," King told me. "The idea that, 'Oh, we're all part of a family, but I'm going to ask you to work crazy hours and for little pay, and I'm not going to treat you with respect' — it rings untrue."
Now imagine what happens when those same organizations decide they overhired earlier in the pandemic, their bottom line has taken a hit, and it's time to reduce head count.
"That layoff feels not only impersonal, but it can feel dehumanizing," said Sylvia Bonilla Zizumbo, a career and leadership coach who spent 17 years at Google before launching her own company three years ago. "It's a blow for those who are laid off but also for those that are still with the company."
According to Bonilla Zizumbo, there are five factors at play in the workplace: time investment, contribution, personal ownership and dedication, work purpose, and performance. Those factors are what make us feel satisfied and successful in our work and nudge us to be more ambitious and productive. At the same time, you're working alongside other people, forming relationships, and building trust. The people part of working is foundational to the business, she said, and what keeps employees motivated.
"With all that in mind, then to suddenly be let go really feels like a betrayal," she said. "It feels like everything you can do to control the outcome — time invested, contribution, dedication, high performance, and loyalty — do not matter."
Wall Street realities
In many ways, tech workers are waking up to a reality that their peers in other high-flying industries have always known. On Wall Street, layoffs are as much a part of life as the new crop of interns.
Wall Street layoffs are cyclical: Banks regularly cut bottom performers to make room for new stars. Bankers live and die by their performance reviews, which dictate not only the size of their bonuses but also whether they still have a job. Those cuts have long been considered a necessary component of doing business in the both highly competitive and highly lucrative world of finance, an unpleasant and impersonal situation for workers who know the deal — that it's all just business.
"Ultimately, it's about driving revenue, and that's how you grow the pie," Charlie Anderson, a partner at the recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles and the head of its investment-banking practice in the Americas, told me. "And so when that is the most important characteristic or point to which you're judged against at any year-end review, I think that drives the culture."
The pandemic, and the booming profits that came with it, had helped delay this natural life cycle, but after the market's terrible 2022, the culling is back. During a recent earnings call, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman described the bank's December layoffs as "overdue."
Recent bank layoffs have been swift and impersonal. At Goldman Sachs, which recently cut 3,200 employees, some workers were called in for 7:30 a.m. meetings to be told they were out of a job. Some junior bankers had just 30 minutes to clean out their desks before they were shown the door. One laid-off consumer-banking associate described it as "doomsday" where "every 10 minutes, I just kept hearing that someone was being let go."
Similarly, in industries like Big Law, firms operate under an "up or out" system, where attorneys are expected to either get promoted or leave the practice. Those who don't perform are "managed out," a way to quietly nudge them out the door. When times get tough, layoff-averse law firms will often conduct "stealth layoffs" following performance reviews, a way to cut head count by shifting the blame to the employee's performance, rather than the firm's financials. Still, as business slows in 2023, especially in practice areas like mergers and acquisitions, even law firms have started announcing layoffs, citing overhiring and cooling demand.
A healthy reset
This isn't to say that the grinding, "chew 'em up and spit 'em out" mentality of Wall Street is the perfect way to treat employees. For years, junior bankers have raised the alarm about the toll the system takes on their mental health, and many large financial institutions have taken steps to shift this culture.
Research has also found that creating a culture of trust can help create a healthier and more-productive work environment. King, the Rice University professor, told me that her research found there were substantial upsides to a workplace that encouraged a healthy level of engagement, belongingness, and feeling supported and included.
"For a lot of people, the relationships they have at work at the individual level and the relationship they have with the organization as a whole are super important," she said. "To minimize the impact of the nature of those relationships would be a mistake."
An ideal workplace dynamic has what King called "perceived organizational support," where employees feel like their organization cares about their needs, like they have a voice, and like they're treated fairly and respectfully.
But for people who are trapped in an unhealthy work dynamic — or just got laid off from one — it's time to rethink the relationship with their jobs, Bonilla Zizumbo, the career coach and former longtime Googler, said. Separating your job from your identity is crucial, as is taking the time to figure out what matters most to you, the things that bring you the most joy, and the people who matter most. Don't put off that vacation, and don't put off your health, she said.
"That's often one of the biggest regrets I hear: You gave your job everything, you were loyal, you didn't tend to these important things in your life, only to be laid off," she said. "And you don't get that time back."
Avery Hartmans is a senior reporter at Insider.
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