Airbnb’s layoffs package is admirable – but is there ever a good way to say goodbye?

Airbnb let 25% of its staff go this week

There’s a sentiment that goes through my head each morning as I go for a dawn run around the park near my house: “We judge ourselves by our best intentions and most noble deeds but we will be judged ourselves by our worst acts”.

The pavements are a war zone at the moment. Everyone believes they are the goodies and everyone else the baddies. Pensioners hollering abuse at 50 metres presume that everyone else is intent on infecting them with the dreaded plague. It’s surprising how a generation intent on taking us out of Europe and ridding us of the metric system are now the authorities on how big two metres is.

But the point stands: we judge others harshly and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. This is going to become especially relevant when it comes to how we judge the behaviour of firms.

As we move out of the first stage of this new reality the rubber is about to hit the road on job cuts. The British chancellor Rishi Sunak – the last remaining member of the government left standing with his reputation enhanced and his integrity intact – is now said to be looking at what comes next after the furloughing scheme that has held the economy together for the last few weeks.

He’s admitted the government can’t keep the scheme running. Inevitably a lot of workers are going to lose their jobs. But how should companies seek to make these cuts? Is there ever a good way to say goodbye?

It’s hard not to be impressed by the compassion – and generosity – of the layoffs performed yesterday by Airbnb. The company has seen its business decimated by the coronavirus. Not only has staying in Airbnb properties become impossible, but normality looks at least a year away from us.

Based on that new normal, the company workforce was too big, and too expensive to run. Chief executive Brian Chesky needed to make cuts in the number of employees at the firm or risk the viability of the entire business.

In doing so, he has set a standard that many firms should look to. As he cut 25% of the workforce (1,900 from the firm’s ranks of 7,500 employees) he gave a settlement that amounted to around 14 weeks’ pay plus a week’s salary per year of employment. He also gave generous terms on equity and (critically with the barbarous US system) a year’s worth of family healthcare – as well as offering four months of career services, establishing an alumni placement team and talent directory, and allowing departing employees to keep their Apple laptops.

There’s no good outcome to this situation for many firms. And no doubt some will be tempted to cut employees and run away from the turmoil they’ve left behind.

Those decisions presume that the world has no memory. That may have been true once upon a time, but things have changed. Sites such as Glassdoor capture a vivid impression of what it’s like to live, work at and be fired by most firms now.

There’s a near certainty that layoffs are coming to much of the job market. Keeping a degree of nobility to the way we do these regretful acts is probably a good business decision. Future recruits will surely be influenced by the grace we showed when having to let people go.

It’s not a bad thing to remind ourselves that despite wanting to be judged by our best intentions, others will judge us by our worst acts. And nowadays, they’ll probably do it in writing, publicly, on sites such as Glassdoor.

Bruce Daisley is a former Twitter VP and author of The Joy of Work

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