Companies are inherently volatile; employees must take responsibility for navigating their careers and industries.
Recently Twitter, Meta, and plenty of other tech companies have announced massive layoffs. The CEO’s have been taking turns apologizing for these layoffs. This is not only unnecessary, it sends the wrong signal.
If you’ve read my prior writing, my headline may surprise you. In The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success No One Taught You I wrote, “You have an obligation as a manager to look after and develop the careers of the people who report to you.” Surely the CEO shares that obligation, so shouldn’t he apologize for the layoffs? The answer is no. Supporting people and laying people off are two entirely separate issues.
Let’s first consider support. Managers, all the way up to the CEO, should support their teams. They should help them learn and grow and foster their careers. That hasn’t changed.
Sometimes there will be layoffs. This could be due to economic downturns, pandemics, wars, and bad corporate strategy. If the CEO got addicted to cocaine and blew the company’s cash reserves on drugs, leading to layoffs, then yes, the CEO should apologize. If the CEO made a strategic decision that was wrong, for example to build the “metaverse,” and it caused layoffs, that’s business. Employees, up through the CEO, should make the best decision they can, but no one will get it right 100% of the time.
If the shares of a company fall, does the CEO owe an apology to investors? Here again, if the CEO made reasonable business decisions, I don’t think she does. We invest in companies and as every investment documentation tells you, “Investments are risky. Past performance does not guarantee future results.” When you join a company, you are literally investing in the company. In some cases, it may be because you get some type of equity. In other’s it’s because your bonus is partially based on overall company performance. Even if you have a fixed salary with no bonus, picking one job over another is partially based on your belief about your future at this company, whether it’s that the company has a future, or the potential growth of the business and your career along with it.
You are responsible for your career. Period. Others should help you, including your manager, up through the CEO, but it’s ultimately on you. You can’t blame the CEO for the company facing adverse conditions any more than you can blame the government for not preventing a viral outbreak or stopping a war. There’s only so much that people can do and we’re not perfect.
When it comes to retirement planning you need to save money in stocks and bonds, recognizing the market may go up or down in the coming years. Your stockbroker can give you tips, but it’s up to you to decide and take steps to invest. It’s not your broker’s fault if that stock, or the market in general, goes down. You must plan for retirement knowing that there will be this volatility and some years your retirement savings may be lower at the end then when it started. Likewise, you must take responsibility for your career across a range of outcomes that includes a lot of company, industry, and global volatility.
Adam Newmann, founder of WeWork just raised more money and is hiring more people. If (perhaps better said “when”) he blows up his next company, will you pity the people who joined? What about the ones who gave him money? They should be going in with their eyes open. While your CEO’s track record may not be as well known as Newmann’s, you have the ability to evaluate the company and the people in it, the industry and its trends, and the economy as well as geopolitical risks. You must judge for yourself if you think this job at this company is a good bet.
One caveat, if the company hires you, knowing there are going to be layoffs shortly, that’s unethical. I know one person who moved her family to a new state, selling her home and buying a new one for a new job. Two weeks later the company announced it was moving its headquarters to yet another state and now the home she bought needs to be sold and the family uprooted again. Her boss said he knew about the pending headquarters move before she was hired, but couldn’t tell pending hires about it, referring to them as “casualties.” That’s unfair. Similarly, if the company lies or withholds material information, it’s unethical. But if the company hires someone, believing this is a long-term job, and then things change, that’s business.
Managers do need to help their employee’s careers. I also believe CEOs should apologize for many more things than they do, but layoffs aren’t one of them. When you drive a car, you need to pay attention to the road ahead of you, the same applies when steering your career.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.