January is layoff season in 2024. Big Tech and big finance rang in the new year with fresh rounds of job cuts, with Google, Amazon, Unity, and BlackRock all letting go of hundreds of employees just since the year started. Then there’s Citigroup, which recorded a whopping 25% drop in revenue and announced plans to shed 20,000 jobs at a cost of $1 billion to the company. That’s left employees at similar companies sharking in their boots, worried that they could be next.
But one employee who was let go took action into her own hands—and she still doesn’t know if she was redundant or if she was fired.
After receiving a 15-minute calendar hold with two representatives from human resources that she claimed she didn’t know, Brittany Pietsch, a former account executive at cybersecurity firm Cloudflare, decided to record her interaction. Pietsch graduated in 2018, according to LinkedIn, likely making her in her late 20s. She posted the exchange in a nine-minute video on TikTok with a banner reading “[Point of view]: you’re about to get laid off,” and prefaced it with the information that her coworkers had been getting “random” 15-minute calendar invites “all day.” The video was posted on Thursday and soon racked up nearly 200,000 views.
After only brief introductions, one HR representative cuts to the chase: Pietsch was being let go from the company because she had “not met class expectations for performance.”
“We’ve decided to part ways with you,” the rep says in the video. But Pietsch quickly stops him to explain her short onboarding with the company. She had only started at Cloudflare in August 2023 and had a three-month ramp-up period, which is typical in sales and recruiting roles that require new employees to receive training and develop client relationships. That left her with only a month before the holidays to start gaining traction before she was let go.
This video has sparked a viral debate about whether the actions taken were part of layoffs (which Cloudflare denies) or termination due to underperformance. Some argue that it’s just one example of the “last-in, first-out” paradigm in which newer employees are first on the chopping block during layoffs. Others think that Cloudflare was masking this interaction as a termination.
“I believe that the employee is getting laid off, but they are trying to disguise this as a termination to minimize their exposure and provide little to no severance,” Paul Bramson, CEO of personal and professional coaching company The Paul Bramson Companies, told Fortune.
The difference between a firing and a layoff
HR experts, recruiters, and other professionals have flocked to the video. Some left comments expressing support and admiration for Pietsch’s audacity to record and post the conversation, and in standing up for herself. Others have argued that she was just getting fired and she could have handled things better.
The longer the conversation goes on, the less clear it is whether Pietsch is being fired or laid off. Pietsch did not respond to interview requests from Fortune, but a Cloudflare spokesperson said that the company did not conduct layoffs, and “is not engaged in any reduction of force.”
“When we do make the decision to part ways with an employee, we base the decision on a review of an employee’s ability to meet measurable performance targets,” the spokesperson told Fortune. “We regularly review team members’ performance and let go of those who aren’t right for our team. There is nothing unique about that review process or the number of people we let go after performance review this quarter.”
The spokesperson said 60 people were dismissed that same day for not meeting performance standards, most of them from the “go-to-market” part of the company, which is in line with previous quarters. An HR rep on the TikTok video confirms the collective nature of the firings.
“Just for clarification, you are not being singled out on this,” the HR representative said in the video. “Your peers are also being collectively assessed on performance as a collective collaboration for Cloudflare.”
There is an important distinction, however, in being laid off versus being fired from a job. Typically, a layoff is a cut that is necessary due to company performance and needing to decrease costs, while a firing is usually solely based on performance metrics or personal characteristics, Kristen Fowler, vice president of human resources and practice lead at executive search firm Clarke Caniff Strategic Search, tells Fortune.
“Decisions on who to lay off are often made based on performance levels or redundancy in work, so it is possible that it is a layoff and she was chosen since she did not close any sales yet,” she says.
Pietsch, however, grew frustrated throughout the conversation and kept asking for tangible data behind the assessment that she had not been meeting performance expectations.
Every conversation with her manager ended with the evaluation that “I’m doing a great job. I have had great activity. I have really great meetings,” Pietsch said. “I make really great relationships with my clients. So I disagree that I haven’t met performance expectations.”
Her repeated requests for concrete data in the video went unanswered, however.
“I really need an answer and an explanation as to why Brittany Pietsch is just being let go, not why Cloudflare decided to hire too many people, then are now actually realizing that they can’t afford this many people,” Pietsch said at another point. “If that’s the real answer, I would rather just you tell me that instead of making up some bullshit and telling me that right before I lose my job from someone that I’ve never met before.”
“I won’t be able to go into specifics for numbers,” one HR representative responded. However, Pietsch continued to push for a detailed explanation as to why she was being let go, and accused the company of hiring too many people.
Who was in the wrong?
While Pietsch has her haters and her supporters at this point, not even human resources experts can agree on whether the company handled the situation properly.
Kathleen Quinn Votaw, CEO of human resource consulting firm TalenTrust, believes this was an improper process.
“This is the wrong way to terminate anyone,” she told Fortune. “If this is performance-related, have the decency to share the details.”
The HR representatives were “impersonal” and intended to “surgically remove” Pietch instead of addressing performance expectations, Votaw added. “Metrics are fact-based and defensible if your company is worried about wrongful termination lawsuits; feelings are not.”
But even if the company flubbed, that doesn’t mean Pietsch was right in how she reacted to the news, other experts say.
“Care must be taken, as any statements related to legal matters can potentially jeopardize the severance package,” Bramson said. “Additionally, employees should be mindful not to damage their professional relationships, as burning bridges can have long-term consequences.”
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