Buzzfeed & the Future of Layoffs

Alarming Layoffs

Recently, the media industry is reeling from mass layoffs. Let’s be clear: in a time where the media has never been more prominent, utilized, and important, entities were laying off huge chunks of their employee base. According to the New York Times:

Two hundred workers, including dozens of journalists, were given the slip last week at BuzzFeed. About 800 people are losing their jobs in the media division of Verizon, the telephone company that owns Yahoo, HuffPost, TechCrunch and many other “content brands.” And Gannett, the once-mighty newspaper empire that owns USA Today and hundreds of smaller outlets — from The Bergen County Record to The Zanesville Times Recorder — is letting go of 400.

This is outrageous to young media job seekers and actually frightening to those who thought they were securely employed. As a professional, I wondered how it would affect the companies engaged in these layoffs and their relationships with their current and former employees. This is what led me to analyze Buzzfeed employee relations in the wake of their layoff.

Disclaimer: Most of my observations are social media-based, and I do not claim to reflect the thoughts of specific current or former Buzzfeed personnel. This is by no means a deep-dive of the Buzzfeed layoffs, just an employee-relations analysis.

Seeking Profit in a ‘Young’ Workplace

Let’s be clear. Any layoff should be well-outlined and planned. Employees should be given ample time to seek new employment, make arrangements, and say their goodbyes. This did not happen here. The news covered it, employees were clueless, and everyone knew it was because Buzzfeed wanted to create a more sustainable business model. The problem is, that sounds a lot like “Buzzfeed is looking to increase its profit margins”, and honestly, isn’t that what they’re saying?

This plan to build sustainability was vague, probably purposely so, because Buzzfeed’s employment options now include extended unpaid opportunities. This means that an unpaid intern could be doing the work of a laid-off employee for a fraction of the cost. Exploiting this unpaid intern model undoubtedly leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the Millennial to Gen Z population utilizing this service, as Buzzfeed is positioned as news that is “like them”, and these groups place values over money all day every day.

While he did not appear to be particularly disgruntled, former employee Matthew Perpetua took to his blog to address the layoff and advertise himself for work. He seemingly confirmed this idea, pointing to unpaid work as being a high earner in Buzzfeed already, making it a distinct possibility for the future of Buzzfeed.

You might be wondering – wait, why would they lay you off? You were doing the quizzes, and that brings in a lot of money! Well, that is true. But another thing that is true is that a LOT of the site’s overall traffic comes from quizzes and a VERY large portion of that traffic comes from a constant flow of amateur quizzes made by community users. In the recent past, the second highest traffic driver worldwide has been a community user in Michigan who is a teenager in college who, for some reason, makes dozens of quizzes every week. It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers. So, in a ruthless capitalist way, it makes sense for the company to pivot to having community users create almost all of the quizzes going forward. I understand math. I get it.

While Buzzfeed representatives have said that the status of about the college-aged contributor is not quite that high, it does breed distrust in the company and resentment from former employees. This is compounded by the increasing role of unpaid work and contributions coming to the Buzzfeed office.

Employees Are the Backbone of Their Image

What could save this image, kind of, is the current employees’ in-office activism. Buzzfeed’s current employees launched initiatives to ensure the futures of their former co-workers, including sharing their portfolios and websites in hopes of getting them noticed. You can currently find sites like Hire a Buzzfeeder, which allow employers to sift through former Buzzfeed employees to possibly hire them.

They were also quick to defend their own whenever they learned that severance packages would not include PTO payouts except in California, where this is necessary, going as far as writing a Medium article/petition. This piece was signed by around 600 current and former employees, showing unprecedented solidarity in this uncertain time. Current employees, whom I would assume could be at the risk of unnerving their employers, even went online on their own platforms to express their disappointment in their company. This outcry even questioned the hiring choices, claiming there were plenty of workers who deserved a lay off more than those chosen. The idea that the layoffs targeted those highlighting minority groups and the LGBTQ+ community has been floating around as well, which looks absolutely atrocious for Buzzfeed’s image.

They have been directly vocal with their employer as well. According to Intelligencer, employees are asking for transparency and directing their anger straight to Jonah Peretti, CEO:

…things in BuzzFeed’s “Ask Jonah” Slack channel — a channel devoted to employees asking questions of their CEO, who will ostensibly answer them — are also as you might expect. A message from Peretti at 12:54 p.m. said management had been holding off on communication with remaining staff out “respect” for those laid off. “For US employees: out of respect for people leaving the company, we didn’t want to begin sharing information about the new org structure and reporting while they were still at the company. Not fair for them to have to sit through presentations or read slack/email about our future plans,” Peretti wrote. “We will begin more communications today, have all hands Wednesday, and smaller meetings through the end of the week and next week.”

“It’s hostile. He [Peretti] is getting slammed in multiple languages,” a source said of the Slack channel. “Currently Portuguese.” (BuzzFeed laid off at least seven staffers in Brazil on Tuesday.)

The Future of Layoffs?

Given the Millennial-based following of Buzzfeed, it led me to deduce that this is the future of layoffs. As younger employees build and take over companies, there will be tighter knit relationships within companies (like Buzzfeed’s “all-for-one” philosophy) that will leave employers at the mercy of their employees. This demographic is likely to publicize and take action, and their quick thinking and media skill will allow them to do this quickly. If you don’t want your organization to be the main topic of the next news cycle, I suggest doing right by your employees, even when they are no longer under your direction, because organizations who promote long-term employment will depend on those relationships down the road. The name of the game is no longer traditional notoriety; these talented kids will be checking your employee reviews.

So, as a Millennial, I recommend organizations who are looking to make a profit do so ethically. It’s your job to protect your employees, which includes the time between transitioning from your organization to the next. That means you also have to keep the whole company in mind when announcing layoffs. Your employees need clarity before the fact, and you will not be preserving anyone’s feelings by excluding them from the future of your company. This idea makes it seem like you don’t see them as future partners, and you’ll isolate them from working with you in the future, which could be extremely detrimental in media where relationships are everything. If you don’t take the high road, your employees might, and that’s going to make your organization look disorganized, cold, and unappealing. Keep that in mind when a layoff comes to mind, or your ability to attract new talent could be drastically hindered.