McDonald’s made news in the last week of March 2023 when it sent an email to workers at multiple corporate offices in America instructing them to work from home April 3 through April 5 as it executed a plan to distribute layoff notifications as part of a major reorganization of the company. News of a major corporation performing layoffs is not “news” per se in the current economic climate, though it was a surprise to McDonald’s workers since the firm is actually doing better than most restaurants as higher prices drive diners down the proverbial food ladder at the expense of more upscale casual restaurants.
The McDonald’s layoff is newsworthy not due to the timing or the numbers but due to the stay at home aspect of the plan. For decades, employees working in jobs which create unique physical or network security risks have grown accustomed to layoff processes more akin to scenes from Goodfellas. It has been rare for such employees to be let go (whether due to layoffs or just cause) with advanced notice. Such workers are normally invited to a conference room with their supervisor and an HR representative. When that meeting begins, people in desktop support confiscate their laptop from their office and people in IT disable their network logins and VPN access. When the meeting ends, the now-ex-employee has nothing to do but return to their cubicle or office, retrieve their personal effects under the watchful eye of HR and walk out of the building.
This process ensures the employee cannot get back into critical systems AFTER being notified of termination to destroy data, steal data, harm networks or initiate actions that can damage physical infrastructure. This process seems a bit cold and heartless and it is in a very real sense. The only thing worse than seeing a colleague get laid off and “perp walked” out of the building with their box of stuff is BEING the employee getting perp walked out in front of your colleagues like you did something wrong when in many cases, MANAGEMENT failed for years to do its job in adjusting to market forces to pump the breaks on hiring to avoid needing a mass layoff in the first place. Brutal as it is, those working such sensitive positions understand why those positions require those types of measures. It is required to protect the integrity of data and services for millions of customers and the public at large.
This process was altered significantly as a consequence of work from home arrangements whereby employees frequently or exclusively worked from home and might not be in a corporate office for that fateful final meeting with HR and their boss to get their layoff packet, COBRA forms, unemployment forms, etc. Many companies took to “remote layoffs” using web conferencing, much like the movie Up In the Air where Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a layoff expert racking up frequent flier miles traveling across the country for one on one layoff discussions only to be grounded back at corporate after a college hire suggests using video conferencing to make the process more, um… efficient. Only in the last six months have the socially dysfunctional, conflict-averse introverts running firms like Twitter, Facebook and Google perfected the remote layoff to a completely non-visual, non-verbal bloodless process whereby people learn they lost their job via an email. Or worse, people find they lose their job by having their email and VPN access terminated and waiting for paperwork to be mailed to their home.
The reporting on McDonald’s plan doesn’t reflect the number of employees that will be affected, the severance packages that will be offered or the exact means of communication. However, the directive given to ALL employees at most (all?) of the corporate locations is to work from home and do NOT come into the office… For three days. Basically, employees have been told to stay home and wait for an email or call.
I’m sure technology has advanced mightily in the innovative, highly competitive cutthroat world of fast food but why would McDonalds conclude that EVERY ONE of the employees being laid off merits the “top security / business critical employee” treatment? Do they all have login access to McDonald’s data center servers? Do they all have access to company financials? Have they all seen the branding strategy for the return of McRib?
So why is McDonald’s executing this layoff with such a seemingly inappropriate, draconian vibe? McDonald’s reverted to partial work from home in July of 2021, allowing two days of remote work per week. Are most employees conforming to that rule or is it still an “aspirational goal” for HR? Maybe the rollout plan was chosen because enough employees are still remote on any given day that it was easier to devise a single written communication plan assuming a single communication medium and they opted for the lowest common denominator knowing some would inevitably get the news remotely. HR leaders and lawyers both are loathe to have mass layoff information disseminated by varied processes that can convey inconsistent information leading to charges of discrimination.
Does this modus operandi say something else about Corporate America? Have the FANGs of the world and the unique leadership styles of their executives succeeded at lowering expectations for these types of human interactions for all companies in all industries?
Does this modus operandi say something about attitudes regarding the workplace and work itself on the part of workers? Not just “labor” at the bottom of the ladder – everyone works for someone and these dynamics don’t skip levels. Have workers internalized the lessons of watching generations of their parents and grandparents get unceremoniously jettisoned from a job and assumed as managers that everyone already expects this? Is that leading managers to just shrug and say why bother agonizing over smoothing the message? Why suffer through dozens of awkward one-on-one conversations? I’m still here, sucks to be you, see ya on LinkedIn?
Or does it say something about the collective mental health of America today and particularly the risks associated with the mental health of an America awash with guns? McDonald’s plan also applied to its overseas corporate employees so the logical leap cannot be made that the order only involved the US, thus reflecting some unique American market fear. On the other hand, the desire of HR and legal types for consistent messaging may have driven the inclusion of overseas workers in the work from home directive. McDonald’s employees about 150,000 workers in its corporate offices (not counting corporate owned restaurants and franchise owned restaurants), the vast majority in America. Even a five percent reduction would be 7500 layoffs. No employer would probably ever publicly confirm they actively considered the threat of workplace violence when executing these plans but it seems HIGHLY unlikely such concerns would NOT be considered. Is this policy indirectly divulging the macabre calculus employers are going through for such events to determine how many could be laid off before hitting some threshold where a violent incident becomes too likely?
I suspect there is some truth in all of these dynamics. I also suspect that younger workers may not consciously think through these events and formally describe the dynamics involved but they are certainly seeing them and factoring them into their own decisions, both in the little picture each day when deciding how much mental energy to devote to the man and in the big picture as they decide what types of jobs to take and how long to stick around before moving on. It won’t get any easier to boost productivity when the overarching vibe in the work place is so fearful, resentful and me-versus-we centric.