When your layoff has a hashtag

Tech companies that created more workplace transparency see their own tools used to critique them

There were few scenes of workers packing up their cubicles, shoving plaques in boxes and commiserating over beers. Instead, there were tweets.

Hung Truong, an engineer, watched his Twitter feed fill with layoff-related posts this past week. Friends and former colleagues were all out of work. Truong, 39, had been there. At the start of the pandemic, he'd lost his job at Lyft. And he recalled the strange relief of posting that on Twitter, knowing he wouldn't have to give the painful update to followers one by one.

That's an experience thousands are now sharing, as Twitter, Meta and other companies slash their workforces: getting laid off in a time of extreme transparency, with social media providing an outlet for immediate processing.

This took on a particularly ironic twist at Twitter, where employees used a platform that had created this new era of workplace transparency to talk about their own workplace. Alternately angry and reflective tweets from laid-off Twitter workers stacked up under the hashtags #LoveWhereYouWorked and #TwitterLayoffs.

"It was the most humanity-affirming moment that as each tweep was fired, we all posted," wrote Rumman Chowdhury, who had worked in ethics and transparency at the company, adding the emoji of a salute. "We laughed and rejoiced in the decency and kindness of friends. What a sendoff, Twitter."

It's the nature of job cuts in an age where people often can't mourn with office-mates at a dive bar, but they can share their reactions with millions online. What was once an intimate experience, and often taboo, is now instantly public information.

People are posting what was once private, since they are remote and cut off from friends. And platforms that ushered in a culture of transparency in other workplaces are seeing that transparency deployed to reveal their own missteps.

"A very quiet and somber activity is now becoming a very loud and vocal activity," said Eugene Soltes, a professor at Harvard Business School.

Loud and vocal, candid and cutting

The norms of candid communication that Twitter enabled have been on display at the company throughout Elon Musk's takeover, as some former employees shared their layoff frustrations in tweets, and Musk used the platform to defend his leadership decisions (and make jokes about masturbation).

"The very town square that Elon Musk owns is now exposing all his flaws," said Mary Inman, a partner at the law firm Constantine Cannon, who has worked with more than 50 whistleblowers, including Tyler Shultz, who helped expose failed blood testing startup Theranos, and Ed Pierson, who spoke up about safety hazards at Boeing. "I'm thinking about The Silence of the Lambs - it's like watching someone eat themselves alive."

Meta said this week it was laying off more than 11,000 workers, or 13 per cent of its workforce. Lyft said last week it was cutting 13 per cent of its employees, about 650 of 5,000. Stripe cut 14 per cent of its staff, roughly 1,100 people.

Some Meta, Lyft and other laid-off workers joined former Twitter employees in posting. "Just found out I've been laid off at Meta," wrote David Jagneaux, a former technology communications manager, on Twitter this week. "I'm actively seeking my next opportunity."

Viral layoff moments have surfaced throughout the pandemic. A video of Better.com CEO Vishal Garg firing more than 900 of his workers went viral in December, provoking an outcry. Braden Wallake, CEO of HyperSocial, a sales and marketing company, posted a photo of himself crying on LinkedIn after laying off two of his 17 workers. Wallake called the selfie "vulnerable"; to many others, it seemed callous to highlight his own feelings when his employees were suffering.

But for workers, public layoff processing can provide a boost at a wrenching moment. Some people get offers to interview at other companies: One of HyperSocial's laid-off workers, Noah Smith, said he received messages from recruiters after defending his former boss's viral post. It can also provide a sense of community that remote layoffs undercut. And it can create a form of accountability for companies that mishandle their layoffs.

"Many of these firms will be hiring again at some point in the future," Soltes said. "Some of the best ways you evaluate a future employer is how they treated people when times were more difficult. This will come back in the future as those firms try to hire amazing people."

Erika Cartagena, who previously led human resources at Etsy and JustWorks and has overseen mass layoffs at a number of other companies, was gratified people had an outlet for processing amid job cuts that she saw as especially chaotic: "What's helpful in these situations is when people get to own their own narrative," she said.

She felt that the layoffs she oversaw were helped, slightly, by the preparation and empathy that went into them - making lists of frequently asked questions, arranging to meet with workers one on one to deliver the tough news. "It went as smoothly as these things can go, considering how difficult the conversations are," she added.

Twitter did not reply to requests for comment about former employees posting about their layoffs. Meta declined to comment.

Tech companies most vocally committed to workplace transparency argue that the recent wave of layoffs reveals just how necessary their platforms are. The scale of these layoffs isn't unheard of - Nokia's restructuring in 2011, for example, affected 18,000 people - but the cuts have been abrupt.

Platforms for transparency

Blind, a technology platform that has more than 7 million users and allows employees to post about their workplaces anonymously, has seen a surge of sign-ups in recent weeks at companies that were known to be preparing for job cuts.

More than 7,100 Twitter employees were on Blind before the layoffs, nearly 95 per cent of the company's staff, and 1,300 signed up within the last month. Twitter employees have been checking Blind four times a day on average since Musk announced his intention to buy the company in April, compared with an average of twice a day before that announcement, according to Blind.

"Layoffs are definitely one of the situations where people find Blind the most relevant," said Kyum Kim, the company's co-founder. "The more information that you have, the more control over your life you have."

At Meta, more than 58,000 employees have a Blind account, or about two-thirds of the staff. Roughly 6,000 employees signed up within the last month. They check the app on average three times per day. Blind saw a similar uptick in sign-ups across companies during the wave of layoffs in April 2020.

Kim realises that his platform makes some executives uncomfortable. They're not accustomed to their employees having free rein to talk about salary, bonuses, leadership and layoffs. Other services like Slack give employers more power: They can limit replies on a channel, and match a comment to a worker's identity. But Kim argues that Blind is valuable to executives, allowing them to see what their workers are upset about and respond before tensions heighten.

"It's something that companies are not used to," he said. "Company-sponsored channels like Slack, internal messengers, or emails - those are all the things that pretty much companies can control."

There are many other growing initiatives that allow workers to expose employer misdeeds, on top of tweeting their way to more workplace transparency. Lioness, for example, is a firm that helps workers share stories of discrimination and inequity with the media, and has supported people at companies like SpaceX, Apple and Glossier. California enacted legislation this year prohibiting nondisclosure agreements that apply to illegal conduct, a law spearheaded by a former Pinterest employee who spoke out about workplace discrimination, including by posting on Twitter.

But in the last week, as Musk has taken control of Twitter and announced a slew of proposed updates to the business, some have wondered what changes will come for a platform that has represented transparency and worker power to so many.

Charlotte Newman, a senior manager at Amazon, found an unexpected depth of support from Twitter followers when she decided to sue her employer for racial and gender discrimination. She used the platform to share her experiences. She received messages of comfort and encouragement from friends, strangers, political leaders and other women who had battled discrimination at their own companies.

"When people hear my story, they've often likened it to David and Goliath, because workers stepping forward in Big Tech have that asymmetry of resources, power," Newman said. "But because of social media - in particular Twitter - there's been this ability to leverage your own story, to speak up."

Newman said she has been dismayed by Musk's tenure at the company so far. "It's been devastating to watch what's happening at Twitter - seeing people leave the platform in droves, seeing it become less of a town square," she added.

Others share Newman's anxiety about Musk's stewardship, given his history of blocking and disparaging critics. Alarm bells rang for Inman, the whistleblower lawyer, when Musk amplified misinformation on the platform.

"Twitter is a great place for people to speak truth to power," Inman said. "But if you're a whistleblower trying to expose truth in a now Elon Musk-run Twitter, you have to be concerned that there's a moving definition of what is truth."

And Musk has taken to Twitter in recent days to flex his new power on the platform: "Trash me all day," he wrote jokingly on Saturday. "But it'll cost US$8." NYTIMES

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