Software engineer Ivan Tarasov read the email just before boarding an international flight from Helsinki to the U.S. Bobby Nath, a user experience vice president, read it half-awake after his home’s Google Nest Hub asked him to link the system with his work email for the first time. Temidayo Moses, a program manager, found out when he tried to check his email just before taking family members, who were in town visiting, out to tour the office where he worked.
Those emails, at least as described in separate posts on LinkedIn, were sent by Google parent Alphabet to some 12,000 employees in January, letting them know they were part of the latest installment of tech’s sweeping job cuts, which have now impacted nearly 78,000 tech industry workers in January alone, according to the website Layoffs.fyi. On social media, employees of the tech giant—including some who had worked for Google for over a decade—described the “transactional” nature of the messages and the shock of waking up to an email and no way to contact colleagues.
Welcome to the era of the digital pink slip. Recruiting, outplacement and employment experts say that while not yet widespread, they’re seeing more examples, particularly in the tech sector, of companies notifying workers they’re laid off via email. At Twitter, emails were the method that told employees whether they were part of the roughly 50% of the company that was let go after Elon Musk’s takeover. Laid-off Salesforce and Meta workers described on LinkedIn that they first learned the news via email.
“Last week was a total nightmare when I worked till 3 a.m. only to find out I was laid-off at 5:30 a.m. as a part of the thousands of employees who were let go from Salesforce without any goodbyes,” former Salesforce software engineer Muhammad Hadeed Noshab wrote on LinkedIn, where he described facing a deadline for a new job or he could lose his visa. “Waking up to this email put me in a very cornered situation,” he wrote.
(Tarasov, Nath and Moses did not immediately respond to a LinkedIn request to speak; Noshab confirmed the email notification. A Google spokesman declined to comment but pointed to an email posted online that was sent to employees from CEO Sundar Pichai. Salesforce and Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment; in emails posted online, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said workers could speak with someone after they got the news by email; Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff said leadership would reach out to employees after the email.)
Experts point to a range of explanations for why tech companies may be using the email approach, from the realities of communicating with a remote, globally distributed workforce to a possible lack of human resources employees available to manage layoff discussions at a time when those teams have suffered disproportionate numbers of job cuts themselves. Some suggested a need for notices to go out simultaneously in an age of LinkedIn posts and Slack channels, where news can quickly spread.
But Jeffrey Pfeffer, a management professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, says such explanations don’t make emailed layoff notifications a good alternative. “There have been studies on how to do layoffs in ways that do less damage and they’re not the ways they’re being done,” Pfeffer says, noting that research shows job cuts, even if done “well” and with lengthy severance, have lasting impacts on company performance. “If you let people say goodbye, if you treat them with some respect and dignity … if you show some sympathy, empathy, whatever—it’s better.”
He and others described emailed layoff notifications as an impersonal, even “heartless,” approach. “It’s so detached,” says Amy Zimmerman, the chief people officer at Relay Payments. “You were with us for however many years—you’ve contributed to the company, you were loyal and committed. Presumably you sacrificed in some ways. That’s the thanks you get? It just feels wildly inadequate.”
Andy Challenger, a senior vice president at outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says the backlash over layoffs made by videoconference earlier in the pandemic—when Better.com CEO Vishal Garg cut 900 jobs via Zoom—may be giving some tech companies pause about the risk of a screen capture or video going viral. “Videos of CEOs [doing layoffs], particularly if it’s in front of a live audience—they just always go badly,” says Challenger.
He says he’s been talking to human resources decision-makers who are struggling with how to deliver the news with so many employees still working remotely. “Do you bring people in to let them go in person, or do you let them go via Zoom? Are you causing more pain by asking somebody who’s been working remotely to drive into the city just to be let go and then have to drive back home alone?”
Challenger also thinks the tech sector’s rapid growth for decades could mean they were unprepared for managing mass layoffs. The industry, he says, “has just expanded at such a wild pace for decades now that they’re not used to these types of reductions in force.”
Patrick McAdams, CEO of tech recruiting firm Andiamo, says another factor may be that human resources personnel have been disproportionately impacted by the job cuts, and there may simply not be enough people to help oversee individual discussions. “These are the folks who would have been leading some of these [conversations],” he says. In layoffs, there’s a “need to have a human resources business partner present,” he says, but in some cases, there’s “such a limited number.”
McAdams says companies may also see an emailed notification as a way to balance fairness, timeliness, and an effort to communicate accurately at scale. But when “everyone’s communicated with in the same way, then you lose the human aspect of it,” especially for people who might have been decade-long employees at the company.
Several laid-off Google employees, granted anonymity due to concerns about severance or being critical of a former employer during a job search, described having no official meetings with a manager or company-wide town hall to deliver the news; rather, they had access to internal systems cut as the email layoff notifications were delivered.
Peter Cappelli, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies human resources, says legal teams tend to be influential in such decisions, rather than managers who may be concerned about the impact of such impersonal approaches on future hiring prospects.
“It’s deferring to the lawyers who are trying to drive legal risk to zero,” he says. At a time when many companies are still hiring, “you’re burning bridges with people you might have to turn around and hire again.”
Human resources executives who’ve worked in the industry for years bemoan that large-scale layoffs can’t be done with a more personal touch. Jenny Dearborn, a board director and former human resources leader who’s helped manage tech downsizings in the past, says “to get an email in the middle of the night without a phone call from your direct manager is awful.”
Having remote-based workers is no excuse, she says, recalling a time she had to conduct layoffs and requested to fly to Toronto to deliver the news to one long-term employee who was particularly respected in the organization. “The way it’s supposed to work is that you hear about it from your direct manager—that is the most humane thing,” Dearborn says.
“When companies do this well,” she says, “there’s this very orchestrated communications cascade where … everybody has to complete these phone calls in this tier by 10 am,” for example. Dearborn says “humans throughout history have been amazing at orchestrating [job cuts] with a lot less technology and with a lot more care and insight and humanity.”