We are ruled by the worst people, part infinity

Image from iOS

I survived a layoff this week. This is the third round of layoffs I’ve witnessed in three years (my previous employer was shut down a few months ago, which would have been a fourth).

Layoffs are strange. For one, it’s rarely clear why certain employees were chosen. One might imagine that “performance” is an important part of the decision, but this is typically not the case. At my company, high performers were let go along with low performers. People who were recently promoted were laid off, as were recent hires, who presumably haven’t even gotten used to the day-to-day responsibilities. My annual performance review hadn’t even been finalized, which raises the question of whether my performance was considered at all.

(This is not as bad as it sounds. Even if using performance as a criterion for layoffs might sound meritocratic, and even if some of my colleagues are incompetent, lazy, or both, there is no guarantee that the system could distinguish between a good employee and a bad one. As one of my colleagues remarked, even merely giving a colleague praise and criticism in a peer review would be fraught with danger if that review could subsequently be used in a layoff decision.)

The aftermath of a layoff is also strange. I spent Monday and Tuesday trying to figure out who was fired and who wasn’t: companies rarely publish a list of employees, even internally. I scanned hundreds of Slack channels instead of doing my actual work. I seemed to be driven by a manic, anxious energy that only fed on itself.

I had actually been looking for a new job prior to the layoffs, largely in anticipation of them. (Most of my colleagues were blindsided, despite the ill portents.) Afterwards, I found myself calculating whether to continue the search, or to assume that the layoffs had granted a reprieve. Given that having multiple rounds of layoffs is not at all uncommon, I decided to stay the course.

Perhaps the strangest part of the aftermath of a layoff is listening to people above you in the company — not your boss, but your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss — explain what happened, and why. Normally these people are mentioned but not seen — e.g., ”my boss told me Tony wanted this done”. During this week, I saw them, and immediately and deeply regretted it.

I had three “town halls” this week: one with the CEO, one with the leaders of my business division, and one with my boss. The CEO’s was particularly funny because the name of the event is “Unplugged”, which suggests a high level of candor and openness. But of the hundreds of questions submitted by employees, only twenty got past HR moderation (which was introduced a few months ago, after a previous town hall ended in disaster).

The CEO gave a 10 minute speech, emphasizing how he had to make “tough decisions”, and how the outcome was “tough” on us and was also “tough” for him. (I was telling my friend that if we’d had a drinking game, I’d be dead.) He enthusiastically recounted the usual chair-shuffling — consolidating divisions, reorganizing vice presidents, appointing two “co-presidents” — that he felt would make us a “stronger company”. He talked about the rapid pace of innovation and the rise of new technologies like “large language models” (LLMs) and “ChatGPT”, and how we needed to move just as quickly to keep pace. Left unanswered was why we’d fired people indiscriminately, including machine learning engineers and researchers with experience in LLMs. (And, as Yann Lecun, Chief AI Scientist at Facebook, pointed out, “[These models] are useful but they make stuff up. [This is] why large tech CEOs have been hesitant to release such things for public use.” Given how far behind OpenAI, Google, and Facebook we are, I’m sure our efforts would be even more inept.)

He mentioned that some decisions he makes are “one way doors” (irreversible), and others are “two way doors” (reversible), and he regretted that these layoffs were in the former category. (I later discovered this is a concept Jeff Bezos wrote about in 1997, and has been passed along as profundity by the business school braintrust since then.) In a rare moment of weakness, he admitted that he followed “the herd” (other tech CEOs) in growing the company too rapidly after the pandemic —and in spouting their cliches and parables, I guess — and that the layoffs were a consequence of us “overextending” ourselves. He also mentioned he was “learning on the job” just like the rest of us (adorable!). Finally, he closed by saying that he “took accountability” for the decisions he made, although his compensation seems to be unchanged and he still has a job, unlike some of my colleagues.

Naturally, my coworkers worried about whether they would be next. Several questions, both in the CEO’s town hall and the others, asked about the factors that informed the decision. The most eloquent phrasing was this:

Setting the precedent that [we do] layoffs across the board, expressly without being paired with strategic reorganizations, honestly feels scarier.

There’s honestly zero comfort I can draw for my own future, which I’m sure everyone else is feeling too. It doesn’t matter if I work for a valuable part of the company, or if I perform well. Making the cut decisions so opaque and seemingly random is going to affect my anxiety way more than if the decisions were explicable.

We always received the same answer in slightly different forms. Here is one version, from an HR representative: “As mentioned, the company considered certain factors globally such as obtaining organizational efficiencies and economies, and in some cases other factors. Is talking like this what people learn in business school?

(Perhaps the best practical application of ChatGPT is to make these people redundant, since its greatest strength is sounding like it knows what it’s talking about, and its greatest weakness is not actually knowing what it’s talking about. Someone at my company prompted ChatGPT to deliver our CEO’s speech, and its response included this unintentionally brilliant paragraph, which is surprisingly close to what was actually said: “I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the recent statements made by Jeff Bezos, in which he emphasized the importance of “one-way door” solutions in business. He was right to remind us that some decisions, once made, cannot be undone. This is one of those decisions.”)

The more I interact with these people, the more contemptuous I become. They have no real expertise in anything. They abuse and ruin the English language, and they think only in cliches (“change is the only constant”). You could, I assume, have a 30 minute conversation with them about a random topic, and not come away particularly impressed, let alone think that they should be in charge of thousands of people.

They have immense power and seem to believe they deserve it. But the best way to understand their success is that they benefited from capital and circumstance, and, early on, made a few crucial decisions that worked out. As a consequence, they now spend their time making decisions whose outcomes don’t matter, because their companies are already successful and will continue to be so. For a product with a near-monopolistic stranglehold on the market, the money prints itself, and everything else is theater.

Lest you think this story is unique to my company, I’ll mention that of one of my friends. She works at Vimeo, a video hosting company, a bit like YouTube without the social elements. Her CEO, a woman named Anjali Sud, appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year to participate in a panel about “quiet quitting and the meaning of work”. For those unaware, “quiet quitting” is the fashionable new term to describe when employees, usually younger ones, work their allotted hours without going “above and beyond”: or, in other words, what 80% of workers do and have always done. Naturally, the (white/male/boomer) business leaders at Davos were concerned about the impact this trend might have on their profit margins, and enlisted the help of (non-white/female/millennial) Sud to provide some anthropological insight. She said “It’s on leaders and companies to change. I don’t think most leaders feel equipped to [engage employees], and I do think that, without it, the same phenomenon of phoning it in or quiet quitting can in fact lead then to not being able to retain and make productive great talent”. In other words, Sud touted herself as a model to follow, an exemplar of retaining employees and making them productive.

Some facts worth interjecting at this point: Vimeo IPO’d at a share price of $49 and is now at $4.39. Its market cap, once approaching $10 billion, is now around $700 million. It has gone through two rounds of layoffs in the last 6 months, including one, earlier this month, that impacted 11% of its workforce. (According to my friend, in a town hall after the first layoff, Sud angrily attacked someone who anonymously asked if there would be a second round of layoffs.) It is losing subscribers and hemorrhaging money. It is the classic example of a company that thought that the pandemic would last forever (a bit like mine, actually). It offered voluntary buyout packages to its employees, in the interest of keeping only “highly motivated” people, and my friend tells me that a few dozen people have already accepted them. All in all, this seems like asking the captain of the Titanic to give a talk on keeping your ship afloat.

I think what rankles me the most about our overlords is the mere fact that we have to listen to them — that their opinion matters to my friends and me, even if it is ill-founded (and it usually is). Perhaps the most salient fact about our discourse these days is that CEOs believe they are not heard enough. Witness Elon Musk buying Twitter to spread right-wing conspiracies, Ken Griffin threatening Democratic mayors and governors in Illinois and New York with capital flight, Leon Cooperman lauding the benefits of capitalism to minority college students he sponsored for scholarships, millennial Anjali Sud explaining millennial work trends to geriatric billionaires, or my CEO wasting the time of 9,000 employees with an explanation of doors that move in different directions. Some of these examples are far-reaching and toxic, others mundane and relatively harmless. But they’re all bad, if only on principle. These people don’t deserve a greater voice than I have. So why do they get one?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s