My father joined a boutique accounting firm in Toronto after graduating from college and rose to become its senior partner by dint of his smarts, work ethic, and decency. Decency was once a requirement for a leadership position in corporate America and Canada, and there was a dreaded downside to scaling the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. Firing people.

For years, my father’s firm was blessed with a flawless record of making great hires, but once his partners made an error and recruited an accountant who wasn’t up to snuff and couldn’t instill client confidence. Although my father had nothing to do with the hire and didn’t work with the person, his partners argued that firing people was among the responsibilities that came with his spacious corner office. They also argued that having the senior partner handle the firing was a sign of respect for the employee.

I recall my father’s dread the night before he was to fire the employee, a deed he didn’t perform well. Hoping to ease the sting, my father emphasized to the employee how talented he was and that his talents were being wasted in his current position. My father told the employee that he would excel in other positions and encouraged him to pursue them. The signal didn’t quite hit the dish: After meeting with my father, the employee told his colleagues he was up for a promotion.

Corporations were once rife with people like my father, for whom treating employees and colleagues with mutual respect wasn’t a bullshit code of conduct message point. When I worked at the Toronto Star, a highly competitive place where editors could be brutal if you didn’t meet their expectations, journalists who were fired were treated with dignity. In fact, newsroom employees were rarely fired but rather were quietly told to look for another job and given months to find alternative positions.

When I worked in PR, I was involved in the planning of workforce reductions of major corporations. In those days, the persons responsible for managing layoffs were known as HR executives and they tended to follow carefully orchestrated processes designed to reduce the pain and shock of fired employees. Typically, an employee’s boss was expected to participate in a layoff notification meeting, along with someone from HR who was experienced with the unpleasant task. In many instances, HR people insisted on doing dry runs with managers to ensure they were well prepared.

Technology companies have disrupted legions of industries, including the HR practices of many businesses. I recall Google being among the first companies to create the title, “Chief People Officer,” a nod from the “Don’t Be Evil” company that its most cherished assets were its people. Most tech companies have since adopted the “Chief People Officer” title for their top HR positions, and so have those that want to be perceived for their tech prowess.

GM has a Chief People Officer named Arden Hoffman, formerly of the company’s troubled San Francisco-based Cruise subsidiary whose culture and poor leadership a law firm said contributed to regulatory issues and coverup concerns. Jennifer Waldo is Ford’s Chief People and Employee Experience Officer, an indication she might have more responsibilities than Hoffman.

Apologies again for promoting the Starkman Approved Theory, which holds there is an inverse relationship of companies and individuals proclaiming superior righteousness and the values they live by. The maxim applies to companies who have adopted the Chief People Officer title.

Take Google for instance. In the company’s glory days when it couldn’t recruit workers fast enough to accommodate the company’s ambitious growth and was offering employees free catered food, fitness centers, and massages, Google was hailed for the care and feeding of its employees.

But when the going for Google got tough a year ago and the company was forced to discard 12,000 people, it was shocking how fast Google’s management forgot the words to Kumbaya. Some employees learned of their termination when their card readers were disabled while others received middle of the night termination emails. One former Googler who worked at the company for more than nine years said she learned of her termination from a hospital bed shortly after giving birth.

Google refused to honor pre-approved leaves for laid-off employees, and fired employees were denied access to their doctors who worked at Google’s on-site medical facilities.

At Salesforce, where company CEO Marc Benioff repeatedly likened his company’s culture to Ohana, a Hawaiian term for family, 8,000 employees, representing 10% of the company’s workforce, last year were summarily dumped after activist investors clamored for more cost efficiencies. Benioff reportedly refused to answer questions about the layoffs at a meeting meant to address them.

Nathalie Scardino/Salesforce

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Salesforce was planning to lay off another 700 employees, representing an additional one percent of its workforce. Yet, Nathalie Scardino, Salesforce’s President and Chief People officer, still boasts on her bio that her responsibilities include “cultivating Salesforce’s high-performance Ohana culture”.

Elon Musk, the brilliant but soulless tech entrepreneur, brutally fired about 80 percent of Twitter’s staff, representing 8,000 employees, after taking over the social media site in late 2022. A big swath of employees learned they were fired when their email accounts were disabled. Musk defended the callous dismissals saying, “It’s not possible to talk with that many people face to face.”

Twitter, which Musk renamed X, hasn’t had a Chief People Officer since Dalana Brand resigned last March to become Peloton’s Chief People Officer.

Ford’s “employee experience” includes reading about pending job cuts in Bloomberg, which in 2022 broke the story that CEO Jim Farley was planning to cut 8,000 positions to help fund what proved to be his electric vehicle pipe dreams. Ford no doubt leaked the story to Bloomberg to impress the news service’s Wall Street readers, who love when companies fire employees. (Why I never shed tears reading stories about Wall Street employees losing their jobs.)

Admittedly, I have low expectations for Farley, but I was disappointed to learn about the cruelty of Rivian’s latest firings given my previous fawning admiration for CEO Robert (RJ) Scaringe (see here and here). Rivian announced Wednesday that it planned to cut 10% of its workforce but employees had to wait until Thursday to learn if they were impacted.

Michael Doolin, an HR director for over 30 years and managing director at Clover HR, told Business Insider that Rivian employees who aren’t laid off will become, “disengaged, with their performance suffering since they will no longer feel valued or important and will worry that bad things could happen at any time.”

“Productivity will invariably decline as a result, further impacting profits and creating a more negative cycle,” Doolin said.

Rivian’s Chief People Officer is Helen Russell, who as recently as three months ago opined on scaling the company’s workforce to 15,000 from 9,000.

I’m doubtful the Wall Street Journal will be writing a story about the increased cruelty of corporate layoffs. After news of looming layoffs in the publication’s Washington bureau planned by editor Emma Tucker leaked to rival publications, three of Tucker’s underlings reportedly arrived at the bureau two weeks ago at 10:30 a.m. to inform staffers that 20 of them would be cut. According to the union representing WSJ staffers, employees were told that those slated for the HR guillotine would receive emails by noon.

Imagine the following 90 minutes of angst as journalists sat at their computer terminals waiting for potential execution emails. Adding to the cruelty, some employees who didn’t receive execution emails by noon mistakenly thought they were spared but later were notified they, too, lost their jobs.

The Wall Street Journal is a division of Dow Jones, whose Chief People Officer is Diane DeSevo, who according to her bio is “responsible for empowering our employees to have impact by driving the strategy across all People functions, in partnership with Dow Jones business units, leading Talent; Culture; Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; Rewards & Wellness; Organization Development; Workplace Experience; and Workforce Resilience & Security.” (To think that Tucker, WSJ’s editor, reportedly dismissed the Journal‘s writing as “stiff and unappealing”.)

Fortune, Feb. 19, 2024

Little wonder why Gen Zers are showing Chief People Officers the disrespect they deserve. According to this article in Fortune, a staggering 93% of Gen Zers surveyed by an employment website said they didn’t bother showing up for a job interview, while 87% percent said they didn’t show up for work after accepting a job offer.

Here’s another Starkman Approved maxim: What’s good for the goose, is good for the Chief People Officer.

This post was revised after publication to correct an earlier error referring to Kamilah Mitchell-Thomas as Dow Jones’ Chief People Officer. Mitchell-Thomas left Dow Jones in 2021 to join Roku.

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