All hail the algorithm: HR in hiding

Jessica Zwaan
5 min readJan 26, 2023

The rise of being let go by a computer

I heard a rumour that the 12,000 layoffs at Google were decided by an algorithm. Randomly selected. 🤖 Three IC engineers in this team, seven in that 🤖 plucked from the employee database by a roving SQL query.

“Before we work on artificial intelligence why don’t we do something about natural stupidity?” — Steve Polyak

Is it true? Let me open this for legal reasons, by saying I have no idea how Google, Twitter, Meta, Amazon, PagerDuty (yikes), Stripe, Coinbase, or any other tech monolith has been making their termination decisions. Of course we have hints, we have some leaks, we have some published statements, and of course we have speculation, but we aren’t always entirely sure.

Is it possible? Of course. The reason this rumour has any credibility is because of the fact it seems like it may have happened. Engineers with outstanding performance ratings, managers with 20+ years tenure. To those affected, and those on the sidelines, the decisions seemed arbitrary, faceless.

When the tech layoffs began escalating in early 2022, it seemed the admirable way to deal with them was becoming almost templatized: generous packages, job-seeking support, google sheets of candidates, and the ubiquitous “difficult times” medium article sent out by a solemn CEO. I know this because at Whereby we too made layoffs last year and we did what other “human first” companies did during this time. The reason this approach was so appealing was because it reflected a new face of HR’s involvement in these kinds of strategic decisions. Face to face calls, advocating for their alumni, and providing hands-on outplacement support. A true balance of how the HR team adds value not just in building the employee experience, but being an advisory and ‘customer facing’ part of the business.

Then something happened. I think it may have started with the Twitter layoffs, which is already a scary place to start any cultural shift.

People started to get laid off by, well, computers?? No meetings, no discussion, no access.

they’re already turning on us!

“Dear valued <Employee>, You are no longer employed.”

The idea of losing one’s job is always a stressful and difficult experience. However, in today’s increasingly digital world, the process of being told that your job is redundant has taken on a new, dystopian dimension.

Since the Twitter layoffs, HR seems to have hidden…sending layoff emails, bulk access closure, algorithmicly selected terminations, and a brutal absence of humanity. There is no doubt in my mind that there are folks out there who have received an email written by a ChatGPT-generated message, informing them that their position has been eliminated.

The absurdity of this scenario is that the most intimate part of an employee’s journey — the loss of their livelihood — is being handled by faceless computer programs, hiding behind the veil of technology.

This dehumanizing process is not only demeaning but also indicative of a larger problem in our society — the growing reliance on technology to perform difficult tasks that were once the responsibility of human beings. In the past, HR departments were staffed by real people who would sit down with employees and discuss their job status, providing them with support and guidance during a difficult time. Today, however, many companies have replaced these human interactions with automated systems, leaving employees feeling isolated and alone in their struggles.

I ask then, what is the role of the HR team? What is the value?

The use of technology in the workplace is not inherently bad, and it can certainly bring many benefits — I used ChatGPT3 to help write an overview for this very post.

However, it is essential to remember that technology should be used to enhance and support human interactions, not to replace them entirely. When it comes to the emotional and personal nature of job loss, a human touch is essential.

Moreover, the technology can be flawed and can lead to errors, and even if this is not the case, it can be hard for people to accept the idea that a machine can take such an important decision as the one of losing their job. Even if an algorithm is more “fair” we have to ask — is it more equitable? Is it right?

I believe businesses must treat their companies like a product. The way we treat our candidates, employees, colleagues — it defines the way we are seen within the marketplace of culture. This means using technology to assist in building tools, offering support, and guiding the humans we work with every day. HR leaders need to step up and adopt this point of view, advocating for an experience that reflects the value of these customers, and the strategic value of the People Teams. Hiding behind the algorithm diminishes the role of HR, reduces the role to administrative overhead (desparate to be replaced by machine), and it comes at a very human cost.

Despite any progress we have made to date human beings are the most valuable part of your business, and no bespoke algorithm in the world can take that away from us (not yet anyway). It’s time to act like it again.

Me and my cat, looking professional

I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do. I’m a hands-on Chief People Officer. I find my joy in diverse, kind, and world-changing companies of excellent people, which is why I am at Whereby, where our mission is to give people freedom to live and work where they thrive. (How fantastic is that?)

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Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.