Corona Chronicles: The Shittiest Lay-Off in Corporate History
Sit down. Take a deep breath. This stuff can make you cringe. It’s more on company responses to the corona crisis - this time, an extremely shitty example. Get ready for shocking behavior at work.
Inspired (or frustrated) by various corona crisis responses, I’ve been blogging on how companies handle these times. Earlier posts in this series discussed remote work and how crisis reveals character. This time? Lay-offs.
In 2018, Quartz reported electric scooter company Bird as the fastest startup ever to reach a $1 billion valuation. In October, they raised $270 million in funding, and another $75 million in January this year.
With a billion-dollar valuation, the company is considered a so-called unicorn. But while unicorns can look sweet and magical on the outside, the inside - Bird shows - can be rotten as hell.
Due to the corona virus impact, Bird's leadership team and board of directors felt the need to let go 30% of its staff to 'extend its runway'. 406 employees received a vague invitation to a Zoom conference call on "COVID-19 Update".
When the call started at 10:30 a.m., employees were greeted with a 5-minute silence and a slide saying “COVID-19”. Some thought they were experiencing technical difficulties and left the call. They were unable to get back in.
They missed what goes down as one of the coldest, most unsympathetic company announcements ever. Here’s the recording of the now-infamous conference call, posted by dot.LA:
A suboptimal way
“This is a suboptimal way to deliver such a message. […] COVID-19 has also had a massive impact on our business. One that has forced our leadership team and our board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions. One of those decisions is to eliminate a number of roles at the company. Unfortunately, your role is impacted by this decision and Friday April 3rd will be your last day with Bird.”
“Thank you for helping build Bird and for making it so very, very, very special. When we come out of the other side […] we hope we can work together again.”
It seems to be a ‘very, very, very special’ company indeed. One that – hopefully – nobody will return to.
What was scheduled for 30 minutes lasted just 120 seconds. Even worse? The message was not spoken by CEO Travis Vanderzanden himself. What utter cowardice.
Disagreement remains about who was the person making the announcement. At first, we wrote it was Vanderzanden's assistant, but another employee (who wasn't fired) denied this. For sure, not many people would have wanted to be in the shoes of the unidentified woman.
This goes into the history books as one of the coldest, most unsympathetic company announcements ever.
Employees who had the day off couldn't get their computers to log in after the announcement, and had no clue as to why. Many found out through the media. In a follow-up memo, the company seemed more worried about getting their laptops back as soon as possible: "IT will send a box with a return shipping label to retrieve company assets (e.g., laptops, chargers, and badges). All items should be put in the box and mailed back to us by April 15."
Trying to care
Afterwards, Vanderzanden analyzed their handling of the situation as “not ideal”. The initial memo read "As you know, we strive to be community-focused at Bird - we always try to care deeply about the people we serve."
Really? If 'trying to care deeply about people' looks like this, you shouldn't be in the position you're in. Get yourself a new job, mate.
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Possible explanations for this dreadful episode:
New company hit by disaster and didn’t know how to respond so chooses the worst possible response. There is no rehearsed approach to this type of crisis and they improvised an extremely poor performance.
Crises reveal character - this workforce is seen as simply as labour which must be thrown overboard to save the management crew.
Managing organisations requires difficult, complex decisions which will be too demanding for some management teams/individuals. Too demanding intellectually/ emotionally/ethically. Some might fail the test in all 3 dimensions.
Remind me never to have anything to do with Bird or any of its products or services ever again, for as long as I shall live. And to regale anyone who ever thinks of doing so with this account of what totally despicable excuses for “management” did to their employees amidst a global pandemic.
After 14 years at my job, I too was let go over a Zoom call this past Tuesday.
Same shitty and ugly details: generic covid 19 update meeting invite, computers turned off at the end of the call, rush to get computers back.
Our CEO did deliver the news in about 30 seconds but then “jumped” to get on another call so he handed the screen over to the freshly hired HR director. I don’t even know her name. She said it affected about 5% of the company. However after talking with someone I actually know in HR it was more like 25%. A few days later, an IT guy drove 60 miles to get my equipment. Coughing all the way up to the porch.
I get it - I really do but after 14 years I deserved better than this.
There are so many alternatives to layoffs. And thanks for sharing the downside of this - this crisis is going to illuminate those who navigate this consciously and it will show up those who are not willing to look at these options. Pim, I know Barry-Wehmiller and Bob Chapman have been on your bucket list. He helped the company navigate the 2008/09 crisis and is doing so again without layoffs. You may want to tune into an interview with him on Wednesday 15th April at 10am CDT here: https://www.ccoleadership.com/bob-chapman-interview-the-ceo-that-avoided-layoffs-in-08-09-and-is-doing-it-again-for-his-global-organization/
This is awful. But I've also witnessed worse.
Fire drill layoffs are real (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-fired-drill/). I remember witnessing out the window one neighboring startup in San Francisco following that script in 2001 -- and was part of the fodder of F'ed Company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fucked_Company) during the first dot-com crash.
Social capital and social networks are becoming increasingly important in today’s economy at large, and for individuals within organisations. For my MSc dissertation in Organisational Psychology, I researched how newcomers transition into a self-managing organisation (Lee & Edmondson, 2017), an organisation where authority is decentralised and classic manager-subordinate relationships are absent.
It’s all about your people. Now more than ever. But in knee-jerk reactions to the coronavirus many companies are laying off large numbers. I want to shout out to the shareholder-value managers driven by their spreadsheets: “This is not only inhumane. It is bad for your business!”. Why? It will harm your company. Companies that treat their people best in bad times emerged as winners in the past.
"Nothing reveals character like a crisis." We wrote this recently and, as predicted, during the Corona crisis, companies revealed their true colors. Recently, we highlighted the bad. So let's turn to the good, and highlight organizations that not only talk about putting people first, but also walk their talk. Let's applaud those that put their money where their mouth is in difficult times.