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Opinion

Modern technology might seem heartless, but convenience and cruelty shouldn’t be confused

Sacking 900 people over Zoom – just before Christmas – is brutal, but not necessarily cruel

Bad news can’t be delivered over Zoom; that appears to be the feeling behind a thousand angry tweets directed at Vishal Garg, the CEO of US mortgage startup Better.com, after a video showing him sacking 900 employees in one savage swoop went viral.

“Thank you for joining,” Garg begins. “Erm… I come to you with not great news. If you are on this call, you are part of the unlucky group being laid off. Your employment here is being terminated, effective immediately.”

By his own testimony, this was Garg’s decision, and he wanted those 900 poor souls to hear it straight from the source. As mass sackings go, it’s fairly heartfelt; he let everyone know this wasn’t his first Zoom cull and he even admitted to crying after the previous one. 

Now, those 900 people reportedly make up just 9% of Better.com’s workforce, which is said to be an organisation worth around $7 billion (roughly £5.3 billion). Could it have kept them on till after Christmas, at least? You betcha. But this is, sadly, very common at larger organisations due to ‘market changes’ or whatever corporate jargon suits. 

Headshot of Vishal Garb, the CEO of US mortgage startup Better.com

Better.com

Garg has received flak for sacking 900 workers over Zoom, but is the alternative really any better?

Last year, IBM announced 10,000 job cuts across Europe as part of the separation of its cloud and infrastructure businesses. Its HR team probably dealt with it a bit more traditionally, likely sending out formal emails or letters, but, it’s also worth noting that no video conferencing service accommodates 10,000 participants. 

Unfortunately, we are creatures of convenience; you can get lattes delivered by underpaid gig economy workers on bikes, so you don’t have to endure a five-minute walk to the coffee shop. It doesn’t seem extra baristas are hired for this, either, they just have to increase their output, essentially. 

This type of convenience is also apparent in the government’s use of WhatsApp for official business, while simultaneously calling for WhatsApp to compromise the integrity of the end-to-end encryption that makes the service what it is. It’s tempting to think the worst; that the Tories are a shady bunch using destructible messages to conveniently hide any evidence of alleged misgivings. 

This is, however, also a government with a terrible track record on technology, and one that probably doesn’t fully understand WhatsApp. That ministers, too, supposedly began using WhatsApp messaging to avoid their communications being caught out by the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act (mistakenly, it turns out) only adds to the confusion.

The problem here is that the convenience of technology is too often confused for insidiousness, and, to be fair, it’s quite tempting to judge Garg harshly because people’s livelihoods are on the line – at Christmas time, no less.

It isn’t necessarily malicious to use Zoom to sack people, though. Just imagine the alternative? Garg could have just left it to HR to send out 900 impersonal emails but, instead, he got them all on the call and gave them the tough news first-hand. There’s a sort of bravery in that, but, instead, we almost view it as callous, like ending a relationship over text. 

The majority of those 900 have probably never actually met him in the flesh, so most of their communication would have been through video conferencing anyway. It is, unfortunately, a very convenient method for delivering terrible news to hundreds of people. All aspects of work can now be done remotely and, like it or not, that also includes being fired. 

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