There’s never a good way to fire someone. But there are terrible ways, apparently, if you go by how several companies are doing it in droves lately. Taking the cake, of course, is social media platform Twitter that was recently acquired by the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Twitter’s employees found out if they still had a job based on whether they were able to access their systems; an email from the company on the official email meant you still had a job and if the same reached you on your personal email, it was time to pack up!
Last December, Indian-origin CEO of mortgage company Better.com, Vishal Garg, fired 900 employees over a Zoom call. The video of him in the act—that went viral on social media—had him saying: “If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.” Ohio-based social marketing start-up HyperSocial’s CEO Braden Wallake posted a selfie of himself crying on LinkedIn in August after firing his employees. “Days like today, I wish I was a business owner that was only money-driven and didn’t care about who he hurt along the way. But I’m not,” he posted, immediately facing a barrage of criticism.
Closer home, a Chennai-based start-up reportedly laid off 10 per cent of its staff on a 15-minute Zoom call on November 2. According to an employee who was impacted, an email followed within 15 minutes, access to systems were revoked in less than an hour, a hurried exit interview was conducted soon after—that the person’s manager did not attend—and by the day’s end, the person was told not to come to office anymore.
“They [the company] don’t realise that by hiring someone they are offering hope. But [when firing] they told me that my role was no more important. To hear that was the shock of my life,” says the 30-year-old former employee who wishes to remain anonymous. “Where is the empathy?” the person asks, adding that they were not even allowed to access their payslips for the next three-four days. The start-up, that the employee joined only six months ago, has put them on gardening leave for two months and is helping them find other opportunities. “No amount of financial compensation or support will make up for the emotional turmoil.”
According to a former employee of edtech start-up Unacademy, there’s no security in a private job. “Earlier, I used to think big brands won’t fire people easily. But I now realise anything can happen at any time,” says the 25-year-old who was laid off along with what is believed to be 10 per cent of the staff within a month of joining. He, however, says that he has had two-three interview calls in 10 days because of the firm’s help.
An internal memo by CEO Gaurav Munjal to Unacademy employees had him apologising for the layoffs. It said that parting employees will receive severance pay equivalent to the salaries of notice period plus two months, accelerated one-year vesting period for ESOPs, medical insurance coverage for additional one year, and dedicated placement and career support. The firm did not provide any further response to BT’s queries.
After the heady days of multiple simultaneous jobs offers and 100 per cent joining hikes in 2021, Big Tech and start-up companies such as Twitter, Meta, Amazon, Salesforce, Cisco, BYJU’S, Zomato, Ola and Meesho have laid off 142,942 employees between January 1 and December 2, 2022, globally and in India, per tech-layoff tracker Layoffs.fyi. The reason: cooling tech demand amid global uncertainties.
In India, more than 15,000 start-up employees have been laid off till November this year, per estimates. While several tech firms have also fired Indian employees, the exact number is not known. Hardeep Singh, Country Manager of outplacement services firm Right Management, says the actual number may be in multiples of what is publicly known because many companies are doing it discreetly through services such as theirs. “The layoffs are across large tech-product companies, IT, ITeS and start-ups. Layoffs in edtech are much higher than what we saw six months ago. Pharma and healthcare firms are also seeing layoffs as a function of mergers. All kinds of roles are affected. There is no functional or skillset-level demarcation,” he explains.
In a span of a little over a year, the situation has swung from the ‘Great Resignation’ to ‘Great Uncertainty’ for employees. As layoffs become more common, hiring slows and the power shifts back to the employers, less-appealing aspects of corporate culture are coming to the fore. Seasoned HR professional Prabir Jha says Indian firms adopting an overly calculative approach towards layoffs is leading to impulsive decisions and insensitive execution, especially when social security is scarce and labour laws are not very favourable to white-collar employees. “A quarter-on-quarter saving of a few pennies through the silver bullet of headcount reduction seems the easiest thing to do. But companies may then pay a higher price and cost for talent in the future.” Companies have to communicate and listen better, plan for better severance and medical support, says the Founder & CEO of Prabir Jha People Advisory.
Contractually, the employer is not obligated to do anything more than abide by the laws. But mature organisations are willing to handhold the exiting employee through the emotional and practical journey for a fixed duration, usually determined by their seniority, says Right Management’s Singh. “For CXOs, it could go on for 12-18 months, while a 45-to-60-day programme is the norm for juniors. Most people land a job within six to nine months.” He says much of the work they do goes into helping the employee process the grief of job loss, much like the grief of getting out of a relationship. “A job is indeed a relationship, and for many in India, where work is the main identity, it is the primary relationship.”
Business Today tried reaching out to more than 30 recently laid-off employees. Most of them were understandably tight-lipped because of severance contracts they may have signed. The handful who did agree to talk on the condition of anonymity said the style of layoffs was shocking, despite the good experiences they had while working for the company.
One Twitter India employee says, “It came as a shock and it’s not a good feeling at all. A lot of people needed a stable paycheque. Especially in the midst of a recession, it becomes all the more difficult to find an alternative job which pays this well.” The 25-year-old is on a non-working notice period till January 5, 2023, after which he’ll get one month of severance pay.
Shocked, for sure, but that’s not keeping employees from boldly announcing their layoffs on Twitter and LinkedIn. Perhaps the best example is of Twitter India public policy associate Yash Agarwal’s viral tweet which has 54.4k likes and more than 4,500 retweets: “Just got laid off. Bird App, it was an absolute honour, the greatest privilege ever to be a part of this team, this culture #LoveWhereYouWorked #LoveTwitter.”
Their approach is also paying off in finding leads for their next opportunities. Gaming start-up Dream11’s CEO Harsh Jain tweeting to offer jobs to those laid off in the US with leadership experience in design, product and tech was just one example of firms actively responding to the layoff posts on social media. The Twitter India employee who spoke to BT anonymously, claims he has multiple offers already for jobs in Singapore, Dubai and India because of a tweet he put out.
Professional networking platform LinkedIn, which has 875 million users globally, is filled with profile pictures with green rings around them signalling that they are #OpenToWork. One such profile is of a 29-year-old Salesforce developer in India. “Having to say you’re without a job feels shameful for some time. But, it doesn’t hamper job prospects because recruiters also understand that this is a global problem now.” The contract worker who was impacted as part of Salesforce’s global layoffs says he has had three interviews in a week since being let go. The firm did not respond to email queries from BT.
In fact, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky was quoted as saying that “compared to the rest of the world, members in India are over-indexing on networking, on messaging, on job seeking, on learning, which is unique”. The former employee of the Chennai-based start-up also posted about it on LinkedIn a day after getting laid off. “Of course, I didn’t post anything derogatory because the stint was a good learning experience. A few recruiters reached out as well.” She attended four interviews in the first week after getting the pink slip, with some help from her former employer as well.
There’s no shame in talking publicly about getting fired, but the context of it not being performance-related makes all the difference, exiting employees say. “It needs courage to be vulnerable on social media,” says Jha. Future employers could choose to read it according to their convenience. If you desperately need a skill, you overlook just about everything, he adds. But a lot of organisations are sensitive about their brand reputation, especially in the age of social media where outbursts can spell ruin, experts say. Jha says that external expressions of discontent would be less severe if companies were truly more empathetic. Right Management’s Singh says human interactions are a must in firing. “If the emotional outburst happens in a face-to-face conversation, there’s a much lesser chance that I will have the energy to go on social media to blast my organisation because I have already done it once.”
For some, the experience has altered their relationship with work. For most, the takeaway is to constantly skill themselves, build their own networks and ensure financial stability. “I will ask the next hiring manager I meet—What’s the job security?” says the former Unacademy employee. The three-four freelance projects he has going on has cushioned the blow for him, and he plans to continue them even in future full-time positions. “I have plans to start up on my own to ensure my security. I’ll work on that, too,” he adds. The Twitter alum BT spoke to has been running a start-up on the side for the past two and a half years and plans to continue it as well.
Does this mean it will spur more moonlighting? Experts do see an increase in the preference for side gigs in the younger workforce driven more by enrichment rather than insecurity. That said, Jha sees it as a mixed bag: The conservative employees will play it safe and not risk current employment amid fewer opportunities, while some will want to hedge their bets. The Chennai-based start-up’s alum, who says they never had much time for side hustles, will consider them more seriously now. “Everyone is looking out for themselves… I don’t trust these companies anymore.”