The Pendulum Swings: How To Respond To Tech’s Downturn
Many have viewed the last 10 years of tech as having been increasingly employee-advantaged. Jobs were plentiful and talent was scarce, and this led to all sorts of interesting behavior.
Some of this behavior was good and appropriate. As the talent market heated up:
Employers paid more and recruited harder. They also made job requirements more flexible, allowing for people with non-traditional backgrounds to have more opportunities.
Employers were more flexible and open-minded with expectations and rewards
Employees were able to explore new opportunities without much risk. I.e. there were a lot of jobs that paid well, so switching was relatively easy, and the risk of switching to a bad opportunity was hedged by being able to just go find another job.
However, on the flip side, many people observed, gossiped about, and experienced behavior that was perceived as not good or appropriate. This included things like:
Candidates accepting offers, only to keep interviewing and accept a different offer shortly thereafter. Many companies and interviewers and managers had the experience of spending months to fill a role, with hundreds of hours sunk into the process (and dozens with the final candidate), only to get an accept, and then have the candidate back out before joining (or shortly thereafter) because they never shut down their interview process and decided they wanted to go elsewhere.
People working multiple remote jobs at once. The pandemic and remote-work put some employee-advantaged behavior into overdrive. Articles and more articles about working multiple jobs were popping up, and entire sites were dedicated to it. Many managers and employers had the experience of being highly concerned that a remote employee with bad responsiveness was juggling multiple obligations.
The Antiwork movement took off, with more and more people embracing an anti-work, anti-employer philosophy.
Many lamented the kinds of arbitration they had to undertake with “spoiled” employees. Things like facilitating conversations on how the company dog policy needed to be modified in light of the recent incident in the game room.
By late 2021 and into 2022, many were characterizing tech employees as spoiled and entitled, showing no loyalty or work ethic:
Employers were telling the Oracle Jim Cramer they were tired of their spoiled employees.
The concept of “spoiled tech worker” became a talking point in many forms of media.
Now hard times have hit, the pendulum is, in some ways, swinging back towards being employer-advantaged. With that change, and against the backdrop of a major downturn, some companies and managers are embracing their newfound power. You see things like:
People celebrate Elon’s hardcore work environment and leave-if-you-don’t-like-it attitude at Twitter.
A proxy-war against “wokeness”, which in tech is in many ways is more about revenge against perceived-spoiled employees than a broader culture war
Bold and often shocking removal of certain perks (e.g. remote work)
With all of this going on, it’s important to remember that the best know to use their power very carefully. If we’re going into war times, you don’t want to be a Neidermeyer, using your power with toxic confidence. You want to be Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan - a leader that wishes times weren’t hard, hopes for them to get better soon, but is willing to lead capably, fairly, and humbly.
So in this new environment, we’ll use this post to talk about what to do and what not to do as a power balance shifts.
Managers: Don’t Be An Asshole
First and foremost, don’t use the power shift to be an asshole. Inclusivity still matters. People still matter.
One very practical reason to not let your true-asshole come out is that asshole bosses were never optimal, they were tolerated. So while it might feel like you’re crushing it when you just bulldoze through everyone without resistance, you’re not leveraging your team if you elicit levels of fear and anger that are unhealthy and stifling.
If you have to terminate someone for performance reasons, don’t speak poorly about them after they leave.
Don’t raise your voice; don’t casually make veiled (or explicit) threats of performance management; don’t be a bully; don’t be rude.
Reminder that you didn’t earn any of this newfound power and you shouldn’t feel validated by a side-effect of a macro change.
Managers: Know This Is Temporary
Employment markets will be hot again and the people you burn now will burn you back when that happens. This downturn could last 3 more months, and if you act a fool now, your whole team will leave when things get better. Don’t be the person who loses their mind at the start of the fire drill.
Furthermore, the best leaders build teams for life, with people that will follow them wherever they go because they are good and fair. Sure, there are some leaders that have little cliques of subservient jerk lackeys that do their jerk bidding and harass outgroups, but those leaders lose eventually (or at least get visited by the ghosts of Christmas future and past).
Finally, new managers - know that in many ways you’ll be playing on easy mode right now. There will be hard aspects of the job - people and teams have to deliver more than ever. But when it comes to employee motivation, attrition, attitude - don’t calibrate to this period of time.
Act in the short term, but build for the long term.
Avoid changing processes or culture that won’t work when the market shifts back in the other direction. For example: don’t totally strip down your performance assessment in the name of efficiency; don’t build an entire org that relies on a bad job market to retain people.
Everyone: Get It Done
While people shouldn’t be assholes and should know these times might go by quickly - now is the time to get it done. Decisions need to be made, action must be taken, execution must be high quality, tempo must be high.
All employees will need to get used to dealing with change and committing to action fast. Gone are the days lamenting a change that happened 9 months ago. One of the most important skills to hone during this downturn is getting over things fast and fully.
Also, now is the time to be better. With something as multi-dimensional as a software company, you are never doing anything remotely like your best. And, if you’re growing, your best should be improving every day. Remove “I’m doing my best” from your vocabulary - it’s a forfeit. Let these conditions push you farther.
Finally, push the change your company needs. This is a great opportunity for people with good ideas to get them executed. Companies need results and need people who can deliver them. If you’ve been a critic who never felt like they had the right opportunity - now is the opportunity.
There are months, quarters, years of your career it makes sense to try extra hard. This current downturn is one of them. If you can, putting in more time and effort has great ROI right now.
Progress is made when ideas are ready and there is sufficient political will to get them executed on. A downturn creates a will to execute on good ideas - bring them to the table.
The hardest decisions are often the ones you already know the answer to, but just don’t want to execute on. In these times: make the right decisions fast.
Everyone: Leave Toxic Situations
Especially for people who are entering their first tough job market and macro environment, it’s important to know that you can still leave a bad job. Toxic workplaces were built on the back of tough job markets. If you’ve never been in a tough market, you might have a colossal fear of switching jobs or leaving that asshole boss. For most people, especially early in your career, you’re probably overestimating how bad it might be to change jobs in a rough market. People are still hiring, and there will always be a place for high performers. It can be hard to do, but you have to know the difference between toughening up and getting taken advantage of.
If your job is having serious, adverse effects on your mental or physical health for sustained periods, if at all possible - go find a new one (and know that in tech, we’re far from that being not possible for almost everyone).
Everyone: Remember How This Feels
To everyone that in any way took advantage of the employee-advantaged market- remember how this feels. It sucks to have people in positions of power use it in ways that are low integrity. And it sucks even more to have them laugh about it (e.g. “haha i’m working 6 remote jobs and nobody knows”). Let’s break the cycle of abusing power.
It’s important to remember that there’s no worker or manager class conspiracy. Most people are just economic actors doing the best that they can for themselves, with a minority abusing the power they have.
Macro conditions are changing in ways that are creating a more employer-advantaged environment and demanding results of businesses. Use this as an opportunity to refrain from being an asshole and drive major results for your business.