In Tech, Repeat Rounds Of Job Cuts Make ‘Rolling Layoffs’ A New Reality
After the third round of layoffs since November hit Becky Brownlee’s team at Amazon, she posted on LinkedIn about how it felt. “It’s gut-wrenching to lose co-workers,” wrote Brownlee, a “people experience and technology” manager who said in a separate post she’d decided to leave the company. “As an added bonus, those of us that were fortunate enough to keep our jobs have had to absorb an unmanageable amount of work. I understand the need to cut costs, but dragging this out over 6 months is torture.”
Not exactly “cut once and cut deep.” In recent months, that long-held conventional wisdom for planning job cuts often hasn’t been followed, at least in the tech sector, as a range of employers announce two or more rounds of layoffs within a period of several months.
The tracking site Layoffs.fyi includes many tech firms that have made two or more rounds of cuts over the past year. On March 14, Meta said it was cutting 10,000 more jobs in the coming months after announcing cuts totalling 11,000 in November. Wayfair eliminated nearly 900 jobs in August, followed by 1750, or 10% of its workforce, in January. Amazon said Monday it planned to reduce headcount by 9,000 more jobs after announcing in January 18,000 roles would be eliminated. (Brownlee declined to comment further; Amazon pointed to CEO Andy Jassy’s March 20 memo in response to a request for comment.)
The impact on employees, human resources say, can be distracting and increase anxiety. When repeat rounds of layoffs happen, companies can be “filled with people where everybody is waiting for the other shoe to fall,” says Robert Sutton, a management professor at Stanford University. “There’s going to be constant fear.”
That’s why for years, human resources experts say, the maxim of “one and done” persisted, with the hope of helping survivors feel safe and able to move forward. Sutton says the phrase has been in use at least since the early 1980s, when he did his dissertation.
But the old mantra appears to be harder to manage by today, coming out of an era when the prevailing ethos was that talent was incredibly scarce—and amid a rising interest rate environment that has radically shifted investor pressure.
Tech companies in particular, says Nolan Church, a former H.R. executive at Carta and DoorDash who co-founded the talent marketplace Continuum, “had been drunk on hiring” for years, massively expanding their workforces. Employers may have been understandably cautious, initially, about cutting more people than they should, or about giving up workers too easily after years of competing for them with generous pay packages and lavish perks like free dry cleaning.
But as interest rates started rising and investors ramped up pressure to cut costs, what seemed like a deep cut last summer or fall may not have been enough. “It’s not just like an expectation change,” Church says. “It’s [like] the music stopped—and all of a sudden, we didn’t have enough chairs.”
Meanwhile, after years of low interest rates and months of predictions that a recession is just around the corner, the state of the economy has been hard to gauge, says human resources industry analyst Josh Bersin. Until recently, “no one could conceive of an economic slowdown, even during the pandemic.” Now, he says, “we’re going through what I would call a slow motion car crash.”
When Amazon CEO Andy Jassy announced Monday the Internet giant plans to eliminate 9,000 more jobs in coming weeks after announcing 18,000 cuts in January, he addressed the company’s approach. “Some may ask why we didn’t announce these role reductions with the ones we announced a couple of months ago,” he wrote. “The short answer is that not all of the teams were done with their analysis in the late fall; and rather than rush through these assessments without the appropriate diligence, we chose to share these decisions as we’ve made them so people had the information as soon as possible.”
In other cases, companies are flagging in advance how they plan to roll out job cuts over several months. On March 14, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an “update on Meta’s year of efficiency” where the CEO and founder said the company expects to cut its headcount by about 10,000 people, following a reduction of 11,000 in November. Recruiting teams would find out about new layoffs in March, April was expected to bring restructurings and layoffs in tech groups and then business groups in late May, Zuckerberg wrote. “In a small number of cases, it may take through the end of the year to complete these changes.”
But while transparency might be what employees ask for, says Colleen McCreary, a longtime chief people officer now consulting on human resources issues, what many want to hear is clarity. “When is this going to stable out? What does ‘good’ look like? What are we solving for?” she says, are the kinds of questions people want answered.
“Rolling layoffs,” she says, can have negative impacts if dragged out. “The amount of psychological insecurity while people wait this out over weeks and months is truly sad,” McCreary says.
Whatever the reasoning for doing a series of layoff rounds, survivors already face guilt and heavier workloads; uncertainty can add more anxiety. Sutton says what people crave during difficult times is predictability, control, understanding and compassion. He points to research from the psychologist Martin Seligman about the “safety signal hypothesis,” which suggests that when people can predict a stressful event, that also means they can predict the absence of a stressful event, and know if they need to stay vigilant.
“His argument was that one reason the air raids in London [in WWII] didn’t disrupt or upset people as much as you would think they did is because they had a great warning system,” Sutton says. “They could go about their life safely [until] the sirens went on.”
When layoffs are recurring, Sutton says, there can be less ability to predict the absence of them, making people anxious. “Everybody is just in a situation of unpredictability,” he says. “When they go to work and they wake up every morning, they don’t feel safe.”
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