Have we learned nothing?
Leaders still lack introspection around employee departures.
The arrogance I’ve seen from CEOs and other senior leadership roles over the past few years is astonishing. Though I guess, perhaps, not entirely unexpected. After all, many have spent decades in a “command and control” mentality. It’s their company —they get to run it however they’d like, with no regard for employees.
As these companies experienced massive churn, with employees leaving due to return-to-office demands, stagnated salaries, and toxic work cultures, there was collective confusion. CEOs bemoaned that, “nO oNE wAntS tO wOrK AnYmOre” as they struggled to hire. But the answer was obvious to everyone not sitting in the cushy corner office: you can’t run a company without people, and people are not widgets.
But over the last few months, there has been a dramatic shift (yet again) as tech companies lay off people in large numbers. I work in a tech-adjacent field, so every day I log in to LinkedIn and see a new announcement of layoffs from a company I’m familiar with.
I’m not going to speculate on the reasons for layoffs. Having survived two layoffs myself, I know that the reasons can run the gamut — from external factors to internal mismanagement. But I will speculate that some companies will be hit harder than others as they try to recover: and there will be a correlation between those who still operated under old working models and those who are more forward-thinking.
Every employee departure deserves introspection
Here’s the problem with leaders that complained about how hard it has been to hire: they don’t understand what motivates employees. Or they don’t care.
They think that employees should be grateful for a job and don’t own the company’s role in creating a positive employee experience. In some cases, salary wasn’t the issue; people left high-paying jobs because they were burned out, overworked, and money wasn’t enough to sacrifice work-life balance.
Employee departures should include an exit interview if the company actually takes the lessons learned and turns them into action. What’s the point of identifying why employees are unhappy if you don’t do anything to change?
And sure, sometimes the role and the employee are ill-suited. Companies have to make that distinction and not brush off every departure as a “bad fit.” I’ve seen internal rundowns of employee departures that are nothing more than a pile of excuses — no introspection whatsoever.
On top of that, if employees get wind that exit interviews are meaningless, they’ll gloss over the ugly parts. I’ve been there, done that — both in formal and informal discussions about my departure. I had no hope that what I said would make a difference, so why bother with an uncomfortable conversation?
What does all of this have to do with tech layoffs….?
It’s all about the relationship that the company has with its employees. Some leaders take to LinkedIn and immediately talk about how devastating the decision was. Others hit up their networks, trying to help the impacted employees find new jobs quickly.
And some? Treated it as nothing more than the cost of doing business.
Work culture has no secrets
Today’s layoffs aren’t like the past, where they happened in stealth mode. Before, only large, national brands with mass layoffs would make the headlines. Now, everything is public, with companies like Crunchbase even tracking the layoffs. (As a likely relevant side note: Crunchbase announced a round of Series D funding on July 20).
But employees that feel like they were treated callously during the layoff process are quick to make their grievances known. There’s a world of difference between the LinkedIn post that blasts the former employer for its mishandling of the situation and those that post how much they enjoyed their tenure at the company and will miss their colleagues.
It becomes a permanent stain. Assuming the companies undergoing layoffs will rehire at some point, they now have to contend with widespread knowledge of their layoffs. It could make the company less attractive and/or make candidates more hesitant.
Those that care about their reputations will be transparent about what happened: what led to the layoffs, how they helped the outgoing employees, and what they’ll do to grow more sustainably in the future. They’ll work hard to rebuild trust — not only for potential future employees but for the customers that are watching.
What’s next for the balance of power?
Of course, some companies will put zero effort into learning from their layoffs. They lack the introspection required to truly ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again.
However, potential employees now have more information at their disposal. They can research the company on LinkedIn and Glassdoor. During the interview process, a job seeker can ask, “What was the cause of your past layoffs and what steps have you taken to course correct?” Even if a company doesn’t have the perfect plan in place, the answers will be telling. Does the interviewer skirt the issue, or respond honestly and candidly?
It might seem like power has shifted away from employees, who often held the upper hand during The Great Resignation. And while it’s definitely ugly out there right now, there are some positive signs. As recently as June, there were still two job openings for every job seeker. Lots of companies are still hiring like crazy.
Anecdotally, the current wave of layoffs seems to be the result of companies that massively grew and overhired during the pandemic. Those that took a more sustainable approach are still growing and still hiring.
And, I believe, many employees won’t go back. They’re not going to drop their demands for remote work, better salaries, and work-life balance. They’ll look for and find companies that can meet all of their needs, even amidst a turbulent job market.
In the News: Remote work myths persist
The Atlantic published one of the most misguided articles I’ve read on remote work in awhile (entitled The Biggest Problem With Remote Work, but I don’t recommend reading it).
It claimed that remote work has a negative impact on new employees, new teams, and new ideas. However, the research cited had limitations. The article pointed to a 2020 study conducted by Microsoft after its employees shifted to remote work with data taken from internal communications. A study was also referenced, but the data collection period was 2016-2021 — beginning before the pandemic.
Effective virtual collaboration can happen, but it’s a skill that takes time to develop (like public speaking or group projects). Companies that shifted abruptly to remote work in early 2020 were not intentional about the cultural and procedural changes needed. It takes time to adapt, and people who continue to blast remote work for being inferior to in-person work are clinging to “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
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