On Wednesday 17 January, 50 of Microsoft's top executives entertained themselves by hiring the artist Sting to give them an intimate private concert at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. The next day 10,000 of its staff heard they had been laid off.
The artist pitches himself for private US gigs at $1 million+, and he would have gouged a lot more from the Microsoft C-suite for a European appearance. And apparently, those execs who thought their egos needed a massage from an overpriced troubadour, didn't think his performance might sound just a little discordant with the overall mood music at a world gathering whose theme was sustainability... and whose subtext was the ongoing economic downturn.
It was just one of a major series of tech industry sackings. In quick succession, Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft cut more than 50,000 jobs. Meanwhile, Twitter’s new boss, Elon Musk, fired half of the company’s employees late in 2022.
A real decimation
While Microsoft soured its layoff pill with a big party for the top brass, others did arguably worse, with clumsy, heartless sacking procedures that are beyond unforgivable for any company, let alone ones that pride themselves on using technology to enable and empower human interaction, or frankly one which like Google claims not to be evil.
The layoffs all came with a standard justification. The companies had over-hired in the pandemic when it seemed that the world (or the white collar meetings-based part of it) was going completely digital, and there was simply no ceiling to the demand for online services. In some cases, executives explained that there was now a slowdown, and they had simply readjusted to a level of staff higher than before Covid-19 hit.
This justification is somewhat performative. Most of the layoffs were aimed at placating investors whose returns seemed in jeopardy and were couched in terms that those investors could understand. These companies are "bloated" and can become more productive with fewer staff.
The Roman army had a tradition of "decimation," which meant instructing a cohort of 480 soldiers to kill every tenth man. The victims were selected by lot, and killed by their comrades. It was a punishment for insubordination or desertion in battle. It's something of a coincidence that these layoffs usually amount to between five and 10 percent of a given company.
The announcements concentrate on the numbers leaving, and the response from the financial world is often to suggest higher percentages should be culled (Bank of America thinks these companies are still 20 percent overstaffed).
Some of the divisions chosen for cutting can be instructive. Meta's retrenchments, like its cuts in data center building, are a sign that its metaverse pivot was insanely optimistic. Betting the company on something that doesn't yet exist will not work in a world where people are realizing that not all tech dreams come true.
On the other hand, it's possible to look at the Twitter story as an illustration of genuine bloat reduction. When Musk shed half its staff without a backward glance (and with a few glitches like contravening European employment laws) commentators said this was too much. Surely the company could not run, and staff gave 50 percent odds on that a World Cup failure. In the end, Musk closed a whole data center on Christmas Eve, and the only impact seems to have been a temporary, partial failure of the Web interface, and a higher number of glitches.
But the biggest failure in all this has to be the way it was handled. Some staff found out through an automated email sent in the middle of the night. Others showed up for work to find their pass didn't work anymore.
Foreign staff on work visas were left to fear they might no longer be allowed to stay in the country.
As the biggest cuts happened at Twitter, the chaos there was huge. The whole company was locked out for a day, and those remaining on staff were told to work harder, sleeping in the office if necessary.
Google workers spoke of "emotional devastation" at a company that basically blanked 12,000 of them in one go. Loyal and happy Googlers first realized something might be up from a news headline, and found out they were no longer Googlers when they couldn't log into their work emails. The actual "off-boarding" paperwork went in the form of a "cold, gross letter" to their personal email, sacked workers told Fortune.
They noted that the feelings of panic about losing their job were compounded by the anxiety of reading all of the financial fine print included in the email. "I stared at it all day long as I was sobbing and hyperventilating."
More details make it look still worse. For instance, analysts from 365 Data crunched the numbers and, among other things, noticed that 56 percent of the people laid off were female. That is, as a Forbes article commented, not a good look.
As the sacked workers explain, Google previously has had an image of "human-centeredness... treating people with kindness and decency," but these layoffs happened without any personal communication at all - the victims had to reach out to their former manager to find out what was up.
Meanwhile, those on staff showed up to meetings to find colleagues had been spirited away without warning, in a kind of reverse Rapture. That might be the moment when they see through the company Kool-Aid to a darker side.
It's a dark side which contractors have been aware of for a little longer - with companies like Google operating a clear and inequitable two-caste system keeping temporary data center workers in a lower echelon than the permanent staff.
As an aside, we in the tech press should consider our part in the story. We built up the idea that tech had a magic to it. As my former DCD colleague, Scott Fulton commented: "I created narratives around and about the hard work and well-crafted products of good people - many of whom truly didn't deserve another layoff in their lives."
The bottom line is that tech companies aren't different or better than the rest of the world.
And tech doesn't make things better. These companies have been selling their software to their old-guard companies in traditional industries - selling it as a way to make working lives efficient and humane using intelligence and automation.
Two conclusions: Tech might be used for good, but it can also make a bad experience much worse.
And secondly, it seems that because it is more aware of the power of its tools, Big Tech can use them to screw up worse than the rest of us.