The Dark Side of the Tech Layoffs Wave

I find it nothing short of astounding how willing we are to turn a blind eye to some horrendous things in the knowledge industry. There's so much that's common knowledge and we still carry on about our day trying to fit sideways around major elephants blocking the room and ignoring naked emperors. These are some of the every day corollaries that are fodder for common sighs and rolled eyes for most of us: 

  • How the leadership crisis is so evident to all that it is at “No one gets fired for buying IBM” level of business adagio. 
  • How no real change can be expected. At least not change for the good. 
  • How surveys are empty and meaningless. How NPS is a sham. 
  • How we know people are being treated inhumanely and this powers most of the societal mental health crisis and how we trust none of the “employee happiness” efforts. 
  • How the insistance on the emotion-less "professsionalism" is really just insecurity but is systemic.
  • How we know we have entire “business prevention” departments whose sole purpose seems to be to communicate the “computer says “no”. 
  • How calling people “human resources” is wrong. 
  • How the organisation keeps buying pompous big consultancy "strategy decks" as a way to avoid real transformation while covering their behinds.
  • How calling EQ and communication abilities “soft skills” is wrong. 
  • How thinking of tech and process as enoough while we leave people behind and they are burned out and stressed and disconnected is bad business sense.
  • How there’s too much personality cult that enables mad dictator types. 
  • How boards and top leadership teams are often made up of execs marking off days till their stocks mature, their golden cuffs open or, most often, till they can at last retire - the epitome of lack of engagement.

Another ill kept secret specific to the Agile/DevOps/Progressive IT (is this a thing? seen it on a couple of posts of late) community is how they are the keepers of culture when it comes to the tech world, not HR whom they have come to regard as yet another business prevention department concerned only policies and admin whereas tech leaders have to be the ones doing any of the much needed people development work. 

My book, my talks, my articles, they always have the drama of this big disconnect between these two owners of the people function at heart. I wish the gap between HR and IT were closed and they worked together in harmony to make people’s lives better or at least, empower them with tools and permission to make their own lives better. But realistically this may never happen and this separation between the admin side of the people work and the L&D side of continuous improvement can last as long as it ever becomes officially recognised and embraced so that it comes with overt recognition and resources not a side of “blind eye”. So maybe they can stay “ununited”.

That said, to repeat something that I will realistically have to keep saying for the rest of my days at this rate, the most urgent task of both sides is to establish the need and process for people to do the human work themselves. I don’t care who you are in the enterprise, if you see the size of the human problem and know you have to become a people happiness advocate then you need to be willing to slide on the superhero cape and insist on the human work. 

After this last week with the tech cool offs and the Twitter insanity at play, other things that we thought we knew about the people topic is further up in the air when an attack on moral decency and common sense has been committed. 

That anyone can be locked out of their machine as a form of letting them go is insane. That anyone can be fired for dissent is inconceivable. (The fact that the dude who can’t take it is the same one that proclaims he loves free-speech is a juicy cosmic irony in itself). The way this plays out in public with little in the way of genuine outcry or news cycle level of public scandal is rather disheartening. 

Most terrifying, and I think we all feel that no matter how close or far we are from the epicentre of this sh*tshow, one of the things that this has underlined is that culture doesn’t matter. That, despite how it’s been hailed as the be-all-cure-all panacea, it is no protection and it is no warranty. Twitter people felt they had amazing internal culture. They thought they were valued. They thought they were safe if they were performant. They thought there was shelter in having created an emotionally connected bubble with a common purpose. And this is still happening to them. So what’s the point, eh? How can we ask anyone to reignite their fire and find their passion again enough to become super engaged and committed when a fate like this can loom?

Twitter staff (and their less pitted but equally wronged -if better compensated- Meta counterparts) will be fine, they’re valuable and will find other jobs whole also likely shaking his belief in omnipotence with so many lawsuits that his depleted coffers will suffer even more but that doesn't take away what it means in the history of the shift to the new work paradigm. 

Let’s see how Amazon does it after having had both the Stripe and the Twitter example because the way they let go of their 10k employees (3% of workforce) will signal whether or not anyone is paying attention to these fast lessons and whether they can see the size of the injustice or not. 

While the execution is anhorent, the wave of layoffs in the tech industry is not shocking to analysts who have been waiting for the overly bloated big tech to slim down for ages and who also realistically know that the tech bubble overall will have to pop sooner or later with countless over-leveraged and over-financed enterprises making up the landscape but the way we will all navigate it will be crucial.

As a result of this moment, the following mega factors will further affect the mental health crisis in the workplace and we can hardly afford more added to the burount, stress and pandemic post-traumatic stress:

  • The loss of confidence in the protective properties of good culture;
  • The extreme attack on Psychological Safety when a culture of fear and not-speaking-up is being created under our very eyes;
  • The inability to feel secure in the knowledge that layoffs will be handled with sensitivity and common sense (or even legality in some cases);
  • Economic instability in the midst of higher cost of life;
  • The prospect of megalomaniacs taking over and refusing to adhere to common decency;
  • Uncertainty about the fate of remote working and hybrid in light of the Twitter u-turn and how it will embolden other middle managers to justify their need for command and control.

Call to action: HELP! You have to or, if we let this become a moment when the commitment to our people slips after the work we have put into changing that then we can kiss agility, speedy tech and innovation good-bye. We need anyone reading this to become this Human Work Champion so that we alleviate some of the above by helping people have a better life. Double up on your own vulnerability and empathy and help facilitate the "How does this really make you feel?" real talks.

Most importantly? Work with HR to help them help you. As this article from yesterday says, we at PeopleNotTech are doing our part to help by creating HR-enabling plays and will give the software to use for free for the “woke” HR departments that understand the need and want to hack how they can get back on a seat at the big-boys table and genuinely become a people partner so send them our way so we empower them so they can empower all of us in return and this slice of hurtful history can’t repeat itself. 

Related: We Need Large-Scale Cultural Change