‘There was no humanity’: The cruelty of tech layoffs leaves employees emotionally devastated

Employees waking up to find out they no longer have email access. Others showing up to the office only to be denied entry. Delayed severance paperwork. Some immigrants suddenly unsure if they will even be able to stay in the country as executives party at Davos.

As layoffs roil the tech industry—hitting big-name companies including Alphabet, Amazon, Lyft, Meta, Microsoft, Twitter, Salesforce, Spotify, Stripe, and others—those affected and bystanders alike have been left shocked at the seeming callousness with which many of the industry giants are opting to communicate job losses to their workforces.

At Twitter, some employees received the news that they were losing their jobs via email in the middle of the night; others only learned when they were locked out of their company accounts before receiving an official notification. The company banned all employees from entering its offices on the day the layoffs occurred.

Employees at Lyft were notified that they no longer had a job via email; one worker who lost their job told Fortune they they heard nothing from a manager or department head in person, despite being in the office when the layoffs were announced. They were given four hours to wrap up their work before losing access to their computers.

In an industry that thrives on cold efficiency, a little humanity could have gone a long way.

"When you pour your heart and soul into the work that you do, to have the gate just come down and to be so radically severed from everything you worked really, really hard for, it’s emotionally devastating," says one of the workers who lost their job when Google parent company Alphabet laid off rougly 12,000 employees last week. They spoke to Fortune on the condition of anonymity because they don't want to jeopardize their severance package.

The now ex-Googler found out about the job cuts after seeing a headline from The New York Times. When they couldn't access their work email, their heart sank. An email in their personal account confirmed the worst.

"It was really a cold, gross letter with a link to the off-boarding," they say, noting that the feelings of panic about losing their job were compounded by the anxiety of reading all of of the financial fine print included in the email. "I stared at it all day long as I was sobbing and hyperventilating."

While they will miss their work and worry about supporting their family, one of the worst aspects of the ordeal is the sense of inhumanity that has permeated the entire process.

A poorly handled layoff isn't unique to the tech industry. But the ex-Googler is having trouble squaring the company's stated goals and principles—which employees adopt as part of their own sense of identity—with its actions last week. Google did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

"The Kool-Aid is very sweet inside of Google," they say. "[T]here's an explicit and implicit commitment to a human-centeredness, and to treating people with kindness and decency. And to feel such a radial disconnect, so abruptly, is very emotionally jarring.

"All of us had to go in search of that humanity, there was no humanity given," they continue, noting they were the one to reach out to their manager and former coworkers to see who else was affected. "Everything should have been done differently. The people who were not part of the 12,000 [laid off] are showing up to meetings not knowing if the other person will be there. That’s crazy."

The ex-Googler's story is reflective of many workers' experiences over the past few weeks. Jobs suddenly gone, email access abruptly turned off, work lost. The employees lose community, friendship, years of work, and, in some cases, a sense of purpose, not to mention income and health insurance, all without the courtesy of an in-person meeting or even, in many cases, a phone call. Instead, generic emails sent en masse serve as the only termination notices.

"If you thought about the human in the center of this, it’d be hard to justify treating people like this," says Sandra Sucher, a professor at Harvard Business School who has researched layoffs. "It’s an attitude that seems to be treating people working for them as if they’re not really people who have families and responsibilities and their own goals and aspirations."

At the very least, companies should give employees a heads-up and set up in-person meetings between them and their managers (or at least Zoom meetings) so they can ask any questions they have, she says.

While there's no easy way to tell people they are losing their jobs, Sucher points to fintech firm Stripe as getting the balance right. CEO Patrick Collison sent a company-wide emailing informing employees that some people were going to lose their jobs, Fortune reported. Those employees had one-on-one meetings with their managers to learn the news, and in all the communications, Collison and his brother and cofounder, John, took full responsibility for the situation.

Affected employees were given 14 weeks of severance pay, accelerated stock vesting, year-end bonuses, pay for unused vacation days, continued health insurance, and career and immigration support.

That this basic decency is a rarity speaks volumes. And Sucher doesn't buy the excuse given by executives at some of the companies that their workforces are simply too big to be able to handle the situation more delicately.

"These are large, large organizations, which have an infrastructure of management and human resources people," she says. "That should be galvanized."

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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