Layoffs Reduce Safety

I firmly believe as an industry we are in a fragile state. That statement certainly carries vague, fortune teller vibes (how do you prove that, or disprove it, for that matter?). It may be akin to saying the end of the world is here, just you wait – except we see failures in our system all the time, and so can equally be proven wrong or right depending on your point of view (there are always incidents, companies failing, companies succeeding). To the point, systems are always in a state of some form of failure.

But I’ll highlight one aspect why I’m saying that now – mass layoffs. Organizations large and small have expressed “over hiring” over the last few years and making course corrections to right that (record revenue and stock price gains notwithstanding). Using Rasmussen’s model (summary at Lorin’s blog) of the boundaries of a given system, the push for economic incentives and pressures has drastically shifted the approach to safety – in short, do more with less (which is, unfortunately, one of hallmarks leading to burnout according to Dr. Christina Maslach). It’s darkly funny the folks who have perpetrated the mistake of over hiring don’t themselves seem to feel the repercussions of such.

Whenever a company is deciding to do layoffs, senior leadership is telling employees one or more of the following:

  • An employees effectiveness and productivity isn’t enough to prevent them from being shown the door. They lack agency in securing their role.
  • If employees deviate from norms, they are likely to be the first to go.
  • Judgment on what is “safe” and “correct” is decided after the fact and when convenient, as even those who continue to follow “best practices” often face firings as well (“Follow best practices, unless afterwards it shows you shouldn’t have followed them.”).
  • Those who are furthest from these failures, the “blunt end”, will make decisions for those at the “sharp end” despite lacking understanding in the day to day of that arena.
  • No one is too senior or too critical to a system to not be let go for the sake of expected increases in financial success (teams are turned into cost centers).

All of this is to say – expertise builds system safety, but doesn’t guarantee the safety of the experts.

Most importantly of all, given you can’t prove your site will be up next week (please, I beg you, come to me with empirical data attempting to show otherwise and I will point you to every large organization ever with near infinite money and resources still having incidents), all these folks making the decisions have no idea how much of the adaptive capacity they have removed from their system. Downstream and tightly coupled systems, in turn, are fundamentally in peril as well. In the best case scenario, those interdependent systems are aware of potential failures and can expend more time/energy/resources to hopefully mitigate any agitations that might affect them.

So what happens through all of this?

  • Your employees say, and do, less. Don’t speak up – you might be putting yourself in a position to be seen. Positive, productive challenging of ideas, especially with management, could be the difference between keeping your employment and being laid off.
  • Responders will act more slowly. When folks in incidents are unsure that their decisions won’t be questioned in hindsight, they will reach out to centralized systems and those with more political capital to assure decisions are deemed correct. Certainly useful to coordinate but in excess, response suffers as the goal becomes to develop cover, not solutions.
  • Organizations become more blameful. How can you shift negative attention? Highlight others’ failures to save your own skin.
  • Brittle systems further deteriorate. With few goals to inspire work (missing incentives) to better understand costly or risky failure in change, software engineers rely on the hope a system will “just” stay up on its own. Hope is not a strategy.
  • Retrospectives are uninspiring, rote, and intended for creating cover. Deeper introspection isn’t worth the investment. If anything, teams are encouraged to bury the learning and move on.
  • They look for fewer places to make systems reliable. If you’re constantly in need to demonstrate value, and it’s challenging to prove the failures that didn’t happen from making your system more robust, you will avoid doing so.
  • They innovate less. Innovation requires risk, which inherently carries the potential for failure, and people are discouraged from anything risky.
  • They are encouraged to work longer, extended hours. That has statistically shown to decrease effectiveness and productivity at work.
  • They are disinclined to share the work load. I’ve been at companies in the past where mass layoffs force employees to focus solely on their quarterly goals and nothing else. When employees fear arbitrary metrics, teams suffer.
  • People continue leaving. Hitting the thermocline means fewer people want to remain and instead spend more time looking elsewhere.
  • Trust is lost. At some point, I don’t believe that can be regained without drastic hierarchical changes (typically in the approach of a significant change in senior leadership).

In short, you don’t know if you just fired or discouraged someone who will save you from future incidents while simultaneously gambling on cost cutting measures that may not outpace the costs of that failure.

For all of this, I don’t believe those who wield the power to layoff teams will ever correlate these failure modes with the mass departures. It’s too indirect and they are incentivized for short term success, however much we say otherwise. Much like root cause, MTTR, or other simplified ways of approaching failure, it’s too much work to look deeper, so shallow answers are preferred (“They’re lazy”, “No one wants to work anymore”, “We need return to office so we can watch people”, “Let’s install spyware that tracks mouse movement”, etc.).

I don’t believe this is universal – and perhaps that’s naively hopeful. There are managers who shield teams and can see success beyond quarterly results. I’m struggling for ways to convince an industry that wants so hard to see otherwise. My one optimistic belief in all of this, having worked through large scale departures before, is those wonderful folks take their talents and spread them across the industry.


  2 comments for “Layoffs Reduce Safety

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *