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After 20 years at Google, there were no flowers, no card, and no goodbye

After 20 years at Google, software engineer Jeremy Joslin was let go with a brusque email. There was no cake, no “thank you” card and no goodbye party. After two decades, it was over and it was coldly impersonal. 

“I’m saddened that I didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends and co-workers in person… nobody in my management chain ever reached out to me” he said in a series of social media posts. 

“Being let go via a transactional email without any acknowledgement of your personal time or impact on the company is a difficult way to go out. A little bit of compassion and personal touch can go a long way.”

Joslin was not alone in feeling the absence of any humanity in the way he was let go.

On Friday staff at the company’s New York offices had queued to try and get in to work after mass Google layoffs. If their passes flashed green, they still had a job. If they flashed red, they had been let go. 

For many, a terminating email had come in overnight and then their access to corporate email shut down in the morning before they left for the office. It was, said one observer, all a bit “Squid Game”.

Google research scientist Dan Russell is another Google veteran whose termination came as a shock. He posted on LinkedIn that he found out he’d been let go “when I went to work at 4AM to finish up an important analysis, and my badge didn’t work. After 17.5 years at Google, it was kind of a tough way to discover that I’d become a Xoogler. I still believe that Google’s got a great mission…but my enthusiasm was a little tempered this morning.”

Joslin had led on a range of projects at Google since 2003, including being part of the core team that launched video.google.com (later subsumed by YouTube); a squad that helped to improve Google’s display ad revenue; and as the technology lead at Google Play Music — where he was responsible for two core pieces of infrastructure, content ingestion and the company’s external SFTP server; a task that included writing a Google-scale distributed SFTP server that accepted more than 100 million files and 1PB of data during his tenure.

Directing requests for comment to Google, he did briefly confirm to The Stack that before he left he was a tech lead on the Play Games for PC team, working on a custom Android image and its integration with Windows. 

Responding to questions on Twitter about handover, he said simply that there “was no handover.

“I lost all access to corp[orate] resources early this morning and nobody in my management chain ever reached out to me. It’s as if I dropped off the grid and they have to piece together any knowledge I took with me.”

As the “Truman Show” economy ends, the dirty “P” word is back

In the US employees have been laid off across multiple business units including Chrome and Cloud, CNBC reports. Some employees working on the company’s AI programmes were also laid off, says Bloomberg.

Remaining employees are reportedly deeply unsettled at not just the way staff were let go, but the lack of clarity around the decisions: “How were the layoffs decided? Some high performers were let go from our teams,” one question of the many being put to leadership reads, as shared by CNBC. “This negatively impacts the remaining Googlers who see someone with high recognition, positive reviews, promo but still getting laid off…”

Fears of deeper cuts are also rife.

Joslin’s tenure means he leaves with a not insubstantial severance, but the lack of thanks and inability to say goodbye to colleagues clearly and understandably hurts – as it does for others. As another recently laid off Google staffer, Erica Swanson puts it, the way the news was delivered was “highly efficient and highly inhuman. 

“It was a gut punch delivered by email” she said in a LinkedIn post, adding that “on the other hand, the Googler and Xoogler community has been nothing short of amazing, moving quickly and with kindness to offer encouragement and support. That’s always been the best thing about Google…the people!”

Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. by World Economic Forum / Manuel Lopez. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“I take full responsibility for the decisions that led us here” said CEO Sundar Pichai; a common and ultimately vacuous refrain in recent months from CEOs laying off thousands of workers.

Google’s parent Alphabet reported net profits of $13.9 billion on revenues of $69 billion for its last reported quarter (Q3, which ended September 30, 2022.) That was down from net profit of $18.9 billion for the same quarter in 2021. CFO Ruth Porat said: “We’re working to realign resources to fuel our highest growth priorities.”

On Google’s last earnings call, leaders flagged a major emphasis on AI going forward, as well as further monetisation of video, shopping and other products; cloud also got a nod, despite it losing Alphabet money

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“Hardware is an important area of investment for us” added CEO Sundar Pichai on that Q3 earnings call. “We are investing deeply from the silicon to the OS to powerful software experiences, because it’s a big opportunity to move computing forward and build deeper relationships with people who love using Google products.

“It also really helps to guide the Android ecosystem, beyond just building the underlying platform.”

The company reports its full-year earnings and more details on its outlook on February 2.

Meanwhile more staff will be on tenterhook, as cuts appear likely to go international. 

As one engineer noted its “pretty incredible that Google is trying to get away with blaming macroeconomic conditions for their layoffs, when over the last year they’ve spend $57.36 billion on stock buybacks. That’s enough to support the 12,000 laid off engineers at their median engineer compensation for 23 years.”

Many shareholders meanwhile are pushing for deeper cuts. Activist hedge fund TCI Fund Management said that Google added over 30,000 staff in the first nine months of 2022 alone and urged the company to cut 20% of its workforce and address “excessive employee compensation” — the fund said median salaries at Alphabet in 2021 were $300,000 and the average was much higher. Shareholders are concerned that this “rising cost base” comes despite the emergence of any profitable new lines of business at the company in years.

As The Stack made contact, Joslin was heading to a 49ers playoff game to enjoy some post-layoff entertainment and reflection. Other Google staff were flooding Discord channels and other forums to vent, reflect and wonder what the future holds. Many business leaders watching on were also reflecting on the art of letting go.

Google layoffs: The painful art of letting go

Letting someone go is a “vital and underappreciated task of management” says Joel Peterson, the Robert L. Joss Adjunct Professor of Management at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

The former JetBlue CEO’s thought-provoking article “Firing with Compassion” makes 10 suggestions.

One of them is “do be human”.

As Peterson writes: “Managers should also realize that even though the formal employment relationship is ending, the departing employee probably has many personal relationships with coworkers. If those people believe you haven’t dealt fairly or courteously with the person being let go, morale and engagement are likely to suffer. Failing to treat a fired employee graciously can also come back to hurt the business: Some industries are small, and the person you’re firing today may work for a customer or a supplier tomorrow.”

“Particularly in knowledge-intensive industries, relationships with ex-employees are valuable.”

Scaling “being human” during a round of layoffs of Google’s scale may be a monumental challenge: 12,000 bouquets, cakes, and cards are unlikely to be on any technology CEO’s shopping list in a tightening market. 

Cutting veterans of 20 years without a modicum of thanks or a goodbye is particularly brutal however. Remaining staff and management would be forgiven for thinking that there was a better way, even at blue chip scale

Employees who survived the cull will likely now be facing at Google what organisational psychologists emphasised in an essay on “downsizing” is likely to be “increased stress, guilt or mistrust in the management.” 

As a trio of German academics wrote in “Frontiers in Psychology” journal in 2016: “Our results suggest that firms considering downsizing should account for costs resulting from detrimental behavior of survivors. Although we focused on performance, we would expect that [such layoffs] might also affect other behavior, such as OCB [“organizational citizenship behaviour”] , creativity, deviance, or turnover intentions. These costs could be a reason why previous studies often found no positive effects of downsizing on firm performance.”

The Stack would welcome your reflections on the leadership challenges around letting staff go, as well as any stories about recent layoffs. You can get in touch by email or via our LinkedIn page.

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is the founder of The Stack. He previously served as editor of Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics. He has 15 years of experience in newsrooms and consultancies and an unrivalled network. His interests span technology, foreign policy, and sustainability. You can reach him on [email protected]

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