Retaliation, targeted eliminations, legal disputes, and other horror stories from the tech industry
I got a raise at 3 PM, at 4 I was laid off. Exactly two months before our twins were due and my wife and I would become parents for the first time. It was just another Thursday afternoon, at 3 PM I spoke to my manager who told me that I got a small raise. At 4 we were both jobless. This paints a perfect picture of how the layoffs were organised in complete secrecy despite “transparency” being one of the main company values. My laptop was remotely shut down just minutes after I learned the news and that was it. After five years, I was no longer a senior product designer at the company where I had helped build the design department.
It’s like standing completely naked outside in the middle of a blizzard — alone, sad, shocked, empty. But mostly scared.
I felt lost. It’s like standing completely naked outside in the middle of a blizzard — alone, sad, shocked, empty. But mostly scared. Scared because we had two babies on the way and my job was our only regular financial income. My wife cried when I told her: “How can they do this to someone expecting children?” I was silent. Shame and guilt started to settle in and wreak havoc in my head. I turned into a shell of a person.
I went to the local supermarket the day after and met an old classmate from the university. I hadn’t seen him for more than 10 years and was surprised that he lived in the same area.
“You live around here now?”
“Yeah, we just bought a flat not far from here”
“Oh really? We bought a house in this town last year…”
I put on a smile and kept up with the small talk, but all I could think was “Don’t ask me what I do, please don’t ask me about my job…” We spent chatting for five minutes and I dreaded each pause in our chat, fearing that that question might come up.
It didn’t. I was safe. Being jobless was shameful enough, I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. But later I was ashamed of being ashamed. Your mind starts to play tricks on you when something so traumatic happens.
I can’t tell you the details of my layoff, so I decided to be the voice of the many designers who had to go through this traumatic event. I ran a survey and received 159 answers, which is amazing, considering how hard it was to find these laid-off designers. I even got to speak to more than 30 of them and listened to their stories. Here they are, along with the stats from my research. I changed the names of the designers behind these stories to protect their privacy.
Most of the designers who answered my survey were UX/Product designers (76%), 5% of them were design managers, and 9% were design generalists (Fig 1).
37% of them were senior but if we combine that with those who were lead designers we get up to 52% of all participants. Only 23% of them were intermediate and 5% were junior (Fig 2). This proves that experienced and senior designers were mostly laid off. But why would companies fire their most valuable employees? People with the most knowledge and experience? Let’s dive deeper.
Martin, a designer from The Netherlands got laid off in the same month as I, five months later the company re-opened his position and started hiring again. “They didn’t contact me if I wanted it back, so I think my elimination was targeted. The most disappointing thing was to see how my former colleagues completely forgot how badly the company treated me and gladly reshared the ‘we’re hiring’ post on LinkedIn.”
Matthias, a designer from Germany had proof that his elimination was targeted: “I was told that my role was eliminated but it was clear from the pull request to the code of a page on the company’s website (which is public), that another designer was put in my position. I had conflicts with the department leadership so I’m convinced that I was targeted and retaliated against. I filed a formal complaint but nothing happened.” Matthias was a contractor so there were no laws protecting him. Similarly to me, his laptop was shut down minutes after the news and he was discarded and forgotten about. He was two months from his fifth anniversary at the company.
Martin and Matthias are just two of the many designers who think that their eliminations were targeted and a form of retaliation. In fact, my research suggests (Fig 3) that 22% of laid-off designers think that they were eliminated based on retaliation. 42% of them said they were publicly vocal about the problems in their companies and that’s what got them in trouble.
Being a high performer doesn’t save you
Eva, a designer from Denmark was a high performer for years at the company but still got the boot. She was disappointed by the lack of responsibility from the CEO: “The stock of the company where I worked dropped from around $130 per share to less than $30 in just five months. Yet, it’s the CEO of this company who gets to decide to ax 7% of its employees. Why doesn’t he carry some responsibility for the terrible results of the company? Why is he immune?”
Performing well doesn’t protect you from being laid off, except if you’re the CEO of course.
Based on my research, most designers who got axed were high performers — 52% of them to be exact (Fig 4). Only 2% of them scored “low” on their most recent performance evaluation. The worrying stat from this question is that 34% of respondents said they didn’t do performance evaluations. This means that there were a lot more high performers than 52%, they just weren’t formally evaluated. Performing well doesn’t protect you from being laid off, except if you’re the CEO of course. They can afford to perform abysmally and still point the finger at others.
Burnout and problems with leadership will get you a priority ticket for layoffs
Lucie, a Senior Product Designer from France, told me her story of how her problems with burnout put her on the layoff list: “I was completely abandoned by my manager and the UX department leadership when I burned out after four years with the company. I received no support and was put under additional pressure to perform better. And that’s at a company where the CEO publicly said “As a company, we should take a lot of care that there’s no pressure to work long hours.” Managers were supposed to keep an eye out for people who risk burning out. Instead, when I burned out, I was blamed and told that I needed to improve. I had to take a full month of sick leave to recover (which wasn’t enough) and was unfairly given a low performance evaluation score at the end of the year because of it. Right then I knew that if layoffs were to happen, I’d be on the list.”
Lucie isn’t an outlier. There are many designers that I spoke with who mentioned similar problems. Constantly being put under pressure, burning out, and conflicts with managers and the leadership. In fact, 19% of respondents said they had conflicts with their direct manager, 41% said they questioned the competence of their managers (some publicly), and 24% of them said they had conflicts with the company leadership (Fig 5). These stats paint a sad reality of how designers are treated in tech companies.
The “overhiring” lie
Most companies that decided to pull the trigger on layoffs claimed that they had overhired in the previous year. That was the reason stated in my case too so I wanted to ask designers if they believed it. 72% of them answered “no.”
They are right. If you look at the chart showing how many years a designer was with the company at the time they were laid off, you’ll see a spike at one year. That makes sense — they said they overhired in the previous year, combined with those who were with the company for less than a year we get to almost 46%. But wait a minute. This isn’t the majority. The majority — 54% of them have been with the company for two years or more. These weren’t the most recent hires, why were they let go?
Why are there so many designers that were there for two, three, four, five years and more? Why is there another spike at five years? If their reason for laying people off was true, most designers would be in less than a year and one-year answers. I believe this proves that some of these eliminations truly were targeted.
Layoffs are a great opportunity for companies to toss out the “unwanted” employees. Have trouble burning out? Getting in conflicts with the leadership? Too vocal? Leaving for parental leave on top of that? Off you go! They can replace them with new, fresh, and more eager designers who’ll gladly do more for less. That’s what happened where I worked — the designers that were laid off were all senior. Soon after the layoffs (we’re talking days) several intermediate designers were promoted to senior positions. They probably tried to improve the morale among those that remained but here’s what they missed: A newly-promoted senior designer isn’t equal to a senior designer who has been a senior for years. A change of title doesn’t make them more experienced overnight.
A newly-promoted senior designer isn’t equal to a senior designer who has been a senior for years. A change of title doesn’t make them more experienced overnight.
And why is there another spike at five years? I spoke to David, a designer who told me his story and could be an explanation for this. In the weeks before getting laid off, the company leadership shared the engagement survey results with all the employees. One of the key findings was that people who had been with the company for longer (five years or more, which included him) were generally less “engaged.” Putting it bluntly, they were unhappier. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar pattern emerged elsewhere and that’s why a lot of senior people were let go.
I’m confident when I say that most of these layoffs can be attributed to copycat behaviour. After the layoffs at the company where I worked were announced publicly, someone wrote the following on a social media platform:
It’s quite simple: If you don’t follow the herd, you risk being blamed if you fail. But if you follow the herd and do what everyone else is doing, even if the herd runs off of a cliff, nobody points any fingers.
Beautifully put. Now, let’s leave all this behind us and move on to what you can do to prepare for the layoffs.
What you can and should do to prepare for layoffs
Here’s a fact: you will be laid off. It’s only a matter of when not if. Maybe not from your current job, but someday in the future it’ll be you who’ll receive an unexpected email, or get ambushed into a meeting with the manager of your manager and a legal advisor. What are you doing to prepare for that? What can you do? Here are a couple of things.
Launch a side gig
Gladly, I had been running two projects on the side — Better Web Type and UX Buddy. They represented around 30% of my income at the time of layoff and it’s something I have been working on ever since. With two babies and being a first-time parent, I decided I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could and not get a new job, despite being offered many lucrative positions.
Working on my projects allows me to work a lot less and one day it’ll be these projects that will provide for the financial wellbeing of my family. If you don’t have a side project that you’re monetising and something that you could scale in case of getting laid off, you’re risking a lot.
Keep track of your work
I run UX Buddy, a course and a mentoring program to help designers get better jobs. One of the top three problems designers have is not keeping track of their work so when they have to create their portfolios, they don’t know where to start. If you get laid off, you’ll only have access to your laptop for a few more minutes. You’ll lose all the work you ever did for your company. Don’t risk that.
Start a document to keep track of the projects you worked on and add the following details for each one:
- Short description of the problem and how you uncovered it
- What did you do?
- Challenges & how you overcame them. How long it took to complete?
- What were the results? What about the next steps?
- Links to the design artefacts that you created (wireframes, screenshots of whiteboards in Mural or Miro, sketches, designs in Figma)
I have a template for that which I only share with the students of my course but I’ll share it with you for free here. Check it out. Then create a reminder on your calendar to remind you every month to update the doc.
Make local copies of your designs
This one should be obvious but it often isn’t until it’s too late. Regularly make copies of all your design files, especially those in Figma. If you get laid off, you’ll never be able to access them again. Create a reminder on your calendar to remind you every month and stick to it.
Start networking now
And not when it’s too late. This recommendation comes from Patrick Morgan who was laid off three times in his career so far. This is also the one that I always sucked at. I just didn’t get how to network or why. It became clear when the layoffs hit. If you start networking now, you’ll be much more likely to bounce back quickly. It doesn’t need to be fancy either, just connect with people on LinkedIn. By “connect” I mean engage with their posts, comment on them, and send them DMs. Don’t just add them as your connections.
Getting laid off is a great opportunity
Remembering that traumatic Thursday afternoon, my wife and I still discuss the layoff sometimes. She recently said to me: “You know why they picked you right? They probably had 99 reasons but the main one is that we were expecting children. They knew that you needed all the cash you could get so you’d be more than happy to sign the termination agreement, collect the severance, and remain silent. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the laid-off recently had babies or were about to. They’re the most vulnerable people.”
Tech companies are great at selling all the benefits, including paid parental leave when they try to lure you in to come work for them. But they’re also quick to forget that you’re a human being once they decide you’re “unwanted.” Patrick Morgan put it best:
Tech companies talk a good game about their devotion to their people but at the end of the day, they’re profit-seeking enterprises that exist to return value to their shareholders. If cutting headcount will help a company achieve that objective, it won’t hesitate.— Patrick Morgan (Source)
The days after my layoff are still a blur. I remember taking the dog for her morning walk, which I had been doing for months because my wife was feeling too sick to keep at it. But it was different now. I always felt in a hurry on these morning walks, pulling the dog by the leash in all directions as I walked nervously. I just wanted to get it done because I was in a rush to start working.
All of a sudden I could stop. Sit down, enjoy the view, the winter sun, and the brisk air. It was amazing to watch the weak morning sun rays slowly dissolve the mist in the valley below. I heard the birds singing in a nearby forest. It seemed like I heard them for the very first time. Finally, I wasn’t in a hurry anymore. I could process the anger, the shame, and the guilt that had been haunting me ever since the layoff. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was presented with an amazing opportunity, perhaps the opportunity of my lifetime — everything was finally and completely in my own hands. I felt liberated. This quote from Felicia Wu, helped me get through it and see everything more clearly:
Your career is bigger than a single company.— Felicia Wu (Source)
For every Martin and Matthias, thousands of designers got laid off because of retaliation but were powerless to fight against it. For every Lucie, thousands of others were abandoned because they burned out. And for every Eva, thousands of high-performers feel safe but aren’t.
What is your layoff story? Or if you haven’t been laid off yet, are you doing anything to prepare for it? Let me know in the comments below 👇 I’ll randomly pick one commenter on December 11 and send them a printed copy of my book.