5 mins

A poorly handled firing can have a massive impact on team morale and how candidates see you. Just ask Cloudflare.

The tumult in tech continues. Since the start of 2024, more than 150 tech companies have cut almost 40,000 employees, according to data from Layoffs.fyi. Within this already grim picture, however, few organizations have managed to draw as much negative PR as the global cloud services company, Cloudflare.

In January, Cloudflare account executive Brittany Pietsch, surreptitiously recorded her firing and then posted the nine-minute video to TikTok. In the video, Pietsch is informed via Zoom that she is being let go for poor performance by two HR staff whom she has never met. Pietsch counters that she has only been with the company for three months and, in that time, has received nothing but positive feedback from her manager. When she repeatedly presses HR for specific details, it becomes clear that they aren’t going to give her a satisfactory answer.

The footage went instantly viral – amassing more than 3 million views on TikTok, alone – and is being widely cited as an example of how not to do layoffs. What went so horribly wrong, and how can others avoid repeating the same mistakes?

Transparency and feedback

Cloudflare’s handling of Pietsch’s dismissal is indicative of at least two separate types of organizational dysfunction: a lack of top-down business transparency and poor feedback protocols. 

That dysfunction was highlighted by Pietsch’s frequent use of the word “layoff” to describe her predicament, despite not being formally laid off in the first place. This distinction is important. Layoffs typically refer to batch dismissals that are prompted by shifting business needs or budget cuts within an organization, placing the burden of responsibility on the company. Here, Pietsch was fired for unspecified performance-related reasons, along with 40 or so colleagues.

Responding to the incident on X (formerly Twitter), Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said that regular cuts are par for the course of “a normal quarter,” adding: “When we’re doing performance management right, we can often tell within three months or less of a sales hire…whether they’re going to be successful or not.”

However, he did admit that the incident highlighted issues with the company’s process, namely that Pietsch’s manager was not involved in her dismissal and that the task had been outsourced to HR. Prince also agreed that an employee should never be surprised to learn that they weren’t performing to expectation. “The video is painful for me to watch,” he wrote. (Cloudflare did not reply to LeadDev’s request for further comment.)

Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University, says that the lack of clarity surrounding Pietch’s dismissal raises significant red flags about the communication of expectations from leadership to middle management and down at the company.

“It’s weird that local management was telling her one thing – that she was doing fine – while being seemingly clueless as to what was going on at the senior leadership level,” Rousseau says. “That makes you think that the organization has not been doing a good job communicating top-down through the management ranks about strategic issues.”

Stefan Chekanov, the Bulgaria-based cofounder and CEO of the corporate messenger platform Brosix, echoes Rousseau’s assessment. “There was obviously a lack of transparency about either expectations or the perceived quality of her work,” Chekanov says. “As managers and leaders, it is up to us to communicate very clear objectives when we delegate tasks, so that's an area for the organization to work on.”

Chekanov adds that, from his perspective as a leader, the Cloudflare debacle also reflects basic gaps in the organization’s managerial processes. “There are plenty of ways to standardize feedback, and it's odd to see a large organization without any proper protocols in place,” he says. 

Regular 1:1 meetings between managers and their reports, where the employee is given concrete feedback on their performance with regard to specific and clearly-communicated targets, are particularly effective. Especially for an employee who is relatively new to the company or team

Layoff etiquette

Unfortunately, employee dismissals are a reality for even the most smoothly-run organizations. In the event that an employee must be let go, it is crucial that the news is delivered with care.

Ryan Miller, a career service executive at the US-based recruitment agency Employment BOOST, says that in an ideal world, every employee dismissal would take place in a personalized, individual setting. “If you can do it in person, with the employee’s direct manager being there, that would be best,” Miller says. 

If an in-person meeting is not possible, Miller suggests a personal video call as the next best option. However, the widespread attention Pietsch's video has received demonstrates that organizations choosing to conduct layoffs or terminations remotely should proceed with extra caution. There is no way of stopping employees from recording these encounters and posting them online, as long as they are protecting the privacy of everyone involved.

Chekanov doubles down on Miller’s point that if an employee is being let go, the news should come from a direct boss or the person who hired them. That person should also come prepared with concrete details to explain the decision, particularly if the employee is being dismissed due to their performance. “At least this way, moving forward, the person being let go will have some tangible feedback they can work to improve on in their next position,” Chekanov says. And, no matter what the circumstances, companies owe it to their employees to communicate fairly and acknowledge the employee’s impact.

Rousseau, the organizational psychology professor, ultimately views the Cloudflare scenario as an example of what can go wrong when a company’s leadership views its workforce as a disposable resource “that you can turn off or turn on, or give away or sell, as opposed to an asset that you develop – a human being with issues of dignity and wellbeing who can also be flexible in the context of an organization.”

Any failure to treat staff with dignity throughout the employment process reflects poorly on an organization as an employer, and may also send mixed signals about managerial competence. “As an organizational psychologist, I know what happens to people’s future motivation when they've been treated like a thing instead of a person,” says Rousseau.

A corporate culture that lacks basic consideration for how it communicates with its workers, including during the process of a layoff or firing, risks sabotaging the morale and performance of its current and prospective workforce.

Brittany Pietsch got a new job in February.