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Employee layoffs: HR lessons from Cloudflare’s incident

Recent events at Cloudflare have shown, in a hard way, the impact of HR from the beginning of the hiring journey to the end of it, as a former employee's viral video showcased the emotional toll of being laid off.

Alexandros Pantelakis
Alexandros Pantelakis

HR content specialist at Workable, delivering in-depth, data-driven articles to offer insights into industry and tech trends.

A nine-minute TikTok video posted by Brittany Pietsch recently made waves, providing an unfiltered glimpse into the often murky waters of employee layoffs. 

The tech industry has witnessed a significant increase in layoffs over the past few years. According to Layoffs.fyi, in 2022, a total of 1,064 tech companies implemented layoffs, leading to the termination of 164,969 tech employees. 

In 2023, the number of tech companies conducting layoffs rose to 1,186, resulting in 262,582 tech employees losing their jobs. 

What really happened?

Pietsch, a former Cloudflare employee, recorded herself during a virtual meeting with HR representatives named Rosie and Dom, seeking answers about her abrupt termination. Despite her inquiries, the HR duo offered scant explanation, citing performance expectations not being met.

@brittanypeachhh Original creator reposting: brittany peach cloudflare layoff. When you know you’re about to get laid off so you film it :) this was traumatizing honestly lmao #cloudflare #techlayoffs #tech #layoff ♬ original sound – Brittany Pietsch

Pietsch, in a mix of frustration and confusion, countered their claims, mentioning her high activity levels and positive feedback from her manager. 

She pressed for transparency, stating, “If that’s the real answer, I would rather just you tell me that instead of making up some bull**it and telling me that right before I lose my job from someone that I’ve never met before.”

Cloudflare CEO, Matthew Prince, responded to the video, admitting the discomfort it caused him and acknowledging the imperfections in the layoff process. He stressed the importance of managers being involved and HR not being entirely outsourced for such delicate matters. 

By publicly addressing the issue and openly admitting areas of weakness, Cloudflare signals a willingness to learn and grow from its mistakes. 

The incident has sparked discussions about the role of HR professionals and the need for improved practices in terms of communication during employee layoffs.

@mollybmcpherson Breaking down Cloudflare’s HR crisis response: A deep dive into the aftermath of their viral termination call. #PublicRelations #cloudflare #CrisisCommunication #prlady #prcrisis #chrispaul #HRStrategy #brittany #ceo #corporatecommunication ♬ original sound – Molly McPherson | PR

What HR could do better? 

In the aftermath of the Cloudflare incident, the spotlight now turns toward the broader HR landscape, urging professionals to reflect on what could be done better in such challenging circumstances. 

The lack of transparent communication, evident in the vague performance-related explanation provided, highlights a need for HR to reevaluate their communication strategies during layoffs. 

Action items include:

Transparent communication protocols: Establish clear guidelines for HR representatives to communicate the reasons for layoffs openly and honestly, avoiding vague or generic statements.

Employee-centric approach: Prioritize an employee-centric approach by ensuring that the reasons behind layoffs are conveyed in a way that fosters understanding and allows for questions and clarifications.

Involvement of managers in communication: Enforce policies that mandate the direct involvement of managers in conveying termination decisions, leveraging their existing relationships and understanding of individual performances.

Addressing emotional impact: Develop training programs for HR professionals and managers to navigate emotional conversations during layoffs, acknowledging the potential trauma and offering appropriate support.

Related: Onboarding best practices: boost your new hire experience

The manager’s role and the need of leadership skills

While HR professionals play a vital role in orchestrating layoffs, the manager’s involvement is equally pivotal. Layoffs should not be a surprise for employees, and managers, being more familiar with their team’s dynamics, must actively participate in the process.

Leadership skills come to the forefront during layoffs. Sensitivity, clear communication, and providing support are key elements that define a successful manager in these situations. 

It’s not merely about delivering the news but about doing so with empathy and understanding, recognizing the impact it has on the departing employee as well as those remaining.

Building strong relationships between managers and employees becomes a preventive measure against surprises during layoffs. 

When there is open communication, employees are more likely to be aware of their performance levels and potential areas for improvement. 

A supportive manager can guide employees in navigating challenges, creating a workplace culture that values growth and continuous improvement.

In the context of Cloudflare, the absence of a clear and empathetic communication channel between managers and employees contributed to the sense of shock and dismay. 

The incident underscores the need for HR professionals to champion effective leadership and communication at all levels of the organizational hierarchy.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Within the challenges exposed by the Cloudflare incident lies a roadmap for HR professionals to transform their practices. Proactive measures to turn these challenges into opportunities include:

Feedback integration: Establish regular feedback loops to gather insights from employees about their experiences during layoffs, allowing for continuous improvement in HR practices.

Cultivating a supportive culture: Foster a workplace culture that prioritizes support, empathy, and open communication, creating an environment where employees feel safe to discuss concerns about job security.

Continuous evaluation of layoff processes: Regularly review and refine layoff processes, incorporating lessons learned from incidents like Cloudflare to ensure a more humane and transparent approach in the future.

Related: WebMD’s RTO video: it’s mega cringe, but reflects today’s reality

We need to talk about Brittany, and Gen Z

Brittany Pietsch, 27 years old,  showcased notable soft skills in her response to the layoff at Cloudflare. 

Her effective communication skills were evident as she articulated her thoughts clearly and sought transparent answers during the emotionally charged conversation. 

Demonstrating emotional intelligence, Pietsch expressed the emotional toll of sudden layoffs, highlighting her awareness of both her own and others’ feelings. 

Assertiveness played a key role as she actively questioned the HR representatives, pushing for transparency and genuine reasons behind her termination. 

Her resilience was evident in facing adversity with strength and determination. 

In the face of Pietch, many people from Gen Z saw a representative of their needs. 

Gen Z individuals are motivated by a strong desire for purpose and fulfillment, seeking to make a positive impact in their organizations and society as a whole. 

They prioritize corporate social responsibility (CSR) and value the connection between their work and ethical considerations. 

By 2025, HR departments and managers must be prepared because Gen Z is projected to constitute 27% of the overall workforce. If your answer to this is “yes, and?” then unless you are Ariana Grande, you have to take action. 

As HR professionals continue to refine their practices, the Cloudflare incident serves as a catalyst for positive change, urging organizations to prioritize the well-being of their workforce even in challenging times.

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