The List: Coronavirus cutbacks and the new world of layoff tech
Meet the Boston startup behind the Layoff List: "It has been kind of crazy for us. Our traffic has gone up by 2,000% over the last two weeks."
From StubHub to Sonder to ZipCar, the number of layoffs in tech keeps growing. As thousands of jobs evaporate amid the spread of COVID-19, the anxieties of those affected are captured and neatly repackaged in spreadsheets of names — "free agents" and "laid-off folks" blasted out on LinkedIn, Twitter and various message boards.
They are all ledgers of misfortune, but in recruiting circles, questions linger: Which companies made cuts for purely financial reasons, and which seized a convenient time to purge low performers?
"It's a challenge for recruiters to figure out which is which," said Vinayak Ranade, founder and CEO of Drafted, a tech recruiting startup based in Boston. "What happens is that people go into it with an assumption of skepticism, which hurts the person who was laid off legitimately much more."
For Ranade, the coronavirus pandemic collided with a year-old effort to surface talented people in a weekly Layoff List. The index is generated by tips from sources verified by Drafted, then sent out in a weekly newsletter and in more-detailed spreadsheets of individuals who Ranade says have agreed to be contacted by recruiters.
"It has been kind of crazy for us," said Ranade, whose company publishes the Layoff List at layoffs.tech. "Our traffic has gone up by 2,000% over the last two weeks."
The popularity of such lists speaks not only to morbid curiosity but the solace of community. In addition to the Layoff List, anxious tech workers are flocking to anonymous apps and message boards like Blind, Reddit and LeetCode to chat and speculate about who might be next.
Those who've already received bad news worry aloud about visa status or paying exorbitant Bay Area rents, or whether the other companies they hope to work for will freeze hiring. And, in some cases, they complain of the sour taste left by mass layoffs over video calls, such as those seen at startups TripAction and Bird.
In mid-March, Boston travel startup Lola laid off more than one-third of its workforce. Within days, the company's head of HR had created a spreadsheet of affected employees in engineering, marketing, sales and other departments. On long LinkedIn threads, recruiters chimed in that they were already reaching on behalf of clients still hiring.
Yet the underlying tension was hard to miss: "There are lots of other really qualified people who were let go by lesser-known companies in the last few months and deserve the same level of support," one Massachusetts marketing executive wrote.
Shocks and shifts
Amid the drastic uptick in layoffs, people like Ranade would like to carve out a place in the middle of it all. He and others in the career services world say the current moment of chaos could turn into a tipping point for the euphemism-rich world of corporate "outplacement."
"The big trend, regardless of coronavirus, is companies are starting to be more thoughtful about laying people off, at least the ones we see," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if there are more automated tools and software to help with that."
Large companies have traditionally paid global HR conglomerates thousands of dollars per laid-off worker to help them find their way, hopefully mitigating ill will and potential damage to firms' reputations. But with mixed success, some say.
Michelle Vitus discovered the failings of outplacement when she was laid off from a job in clean tech in 2012 and had a "terrible" experience with an agent at a large firm. "He was following a script on dos and don'ts of interviews," she said. "My company paid $3,000 for that one phone call, and there were no metrics."
So in 2014, Vitus founded Slate Advisers, which offers packages starting at $695 per employee. In recent weeks, she's seen a surge in requests for information about outplacement, which at her company includes free subscriptions to online classes at Udemy, video interview training and video calls with a personal job coach. The on-demand offerings are helpful in Silicon Valley, she said, where the process can be off-putting
"We've really designed our offering for tech, and many tech employees have some hesitation around engaging with traditional career services," Vitus said. "You know, thinking, 'Why do I need that? What's that going to do for me?'"
Drafted CEO Vinayak Ranade.Photo: Courtesy of Drafted.
For Ranade, the shift to focusing on layoffs came gradually after a stint in the ultracompetitive world of technical recruiting. When he oversaw engineering recruiting for the travel app Kayak, he would sit down with engineers already on the team and ask for their top three referrals. He discovered a trick to get the best prospects: Don't just rely on the close friends and former classmates whom people tend to recommend off the top of their head.
"I would proactively go through someone's network, maybe on LinkedIn, or maybe through their phone address book, and I would choose who I wanted to talk to and get introductions," Ranade said. "Instead of getting the top-of-mind people that often get knocked for not being very diverse, the way we did it had some nuance to it."
The idea with Drafted, founded in Cambridge in 2014, was to develop technology for companies to better leverage their employees' networks when they needed to hire. One underutilized part of the "career lifecycle," Ranade realized about two years ago, was the aftermath of a layoff. There was still stigma and skepticism about why a person was let go, which he hoped to help recruiters parse.
The spread of spreadsheets
The Layoff List started as an experiment in spring 2019. It was invite-only for recruiters and is still largely run by one customer success associate, Olivia Clark, on Drafted's 14-person team. Clark's job is to verify the legitimacy of people sending tips about layoffs, then confirm the information with a second source.
"We're not Facebook, so we don't have an army of 10,000 validators and a machine learning algorithm," Ranade said. "Our approach to that is to rely on verification of the community member who's submitting it and make sure that they are credible."
While his team has tried to keep up with demand, tech executives and their employees have also been more public about layoff decisions. After Wayfair laid off 550 people in early 2020, spreadsheets quickly circulated, and some workers posted openly about the effects on social media with hashtags like #WayfairLayoffs.
Last week, Kulveer Taggar, CEO of Airbnb-backed corporate apartment rental company Zeus Living, announced an 80-person layoff and asked his Twitter followers to "reach out if you are hiring."
Whilst I'm very sad, I'm acutely aware that for the folks who have been laid off, this is much, much worse, especially given the current environment.
I've committed to helping the ~80 soft land as much as possible (pls reach out if you are hiring).
— Kulveer ⚡️ (@kul) March 24, 2020
Ranade sees such moves as part of a broader shift toward transparency at some companies. "They want to rally the company around helping people who are getting laid off, instead of shoving it under the rug," he said.
In cases where companies don't intervene to help laid-off employees, some tech startups seek to step into the breach, marketing outplacement services directly to workers. Pavel Krapivin is trying to lower barriers to entry with his Los Angeles upstart VelvetJobs, which sells automated resumé-builders, online career coaching and other services. He launched the company after hearing of "inadequate, antiquated and overpriced" outplacement options offered to former entertainment industry colleagues when he worked at Warner Bros.
"These are very uncertain and unprecedented times," Krapivin said. "We are definitely seeing an immediate spike in demand."
Industry giants have acquired outplacement and HR tech startups in recent years. Randstad paid $100 million to acquire San Jose-bred RiseSmart, which pairs virtual job coaching with data analytics to help workers find new roles faster than manual alternatives.
Still, there can be a risk in relying too much on hands-off technology to find real people viable new jobs, said Jeanne Schad, technology solutions strategy practice leader at Randstad RiseSmart. "Technology alone is not going to help people through this crisis, especially for somebody who has lost a job," Schad said. "The combination of the technology and having access to a live coach is so important."
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At Drafted, Ranade anticipates another six to nine months of frequent layoffs if current economic trends hold. He plans to send the Layoff List free to anyone who subscribes for the "foreseeable future." One option he's considering is to combine the list with a feature that Drafted offers called Signal, which suggests potential contacts as job-seekers peruse career pages on companies' websites.
For now, he just hired two employees and is in the market for a third as he mulls his next move in layoff tech.
"The best way to build strong teams is to show them that you're going to be there when it's hard," Ranade said. "That will be remembered."