Fired for being a man

Late in 2016, I heard about a lawsuit against Marissa Mayer and two other executives of Yahoo Corp. over policies that lead to a purge of male employees.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer led illegal purge of male employees, lawsuit charges

Recently I looked to see if I could find a resolution, but I couldn’t.

What happened was that Mayer hired two executives with stated objectives of employing more women, and an apparent willingness to fire male employees to make room for them.

She also instituted a performance-review process that forced managers to allocate specific percentages of their staff to various performance grades, without regard to their actual performance. In other words, if a highly-competent manager assembled a team of 5 high-performing staff, she would still be forced to rate some of them as under-performers in order to fill her quota of staff to get rid of.

This is a trick some major corporations use to evade labor laws requiring major employers to publicly announce layoffs. This improves their image to the investment community; instead of framing it as “company in financial trouble has to lay off staff”, it turns into just a low-key matter of getting rid of dead weight.

Planning layoffs as a cost-cutting measure, and covering it up by staging an elaborate deception about firing employees for underperformance, is quite a nasty trick: it makes it hard for the fired employees to ever find another job, because it’s impossible to hide lack of good references.

The way these types of performance-review systems are set up, managers have an incentive to spare or sacrifice staff according to the strategic value of their role, instead of on their actual performance. For example, if an employee serves as a shared resource among several different work-groups in different departments, his supervisor has an incentive to give him a low mark on his review, because some of her budget is being spent on service to other departments. She would rather lose staff she’s forced to share with other departments, than staff who work 100% for her.

One of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit unwittingly made himself expendable by taking an approved sabbatical. He was working on a story for the company while on sabbatical, but since he wasn’t working for the company full-time, there was an incentive to get rid of him.

That said, it wasn’t his supervisor who got rid of him. His supervisor’s rating of him was over-ridden by an executive named Megan Liberman. That was another way that the system was designed for abuse: higher-ranking managers could over-ride the ratings assigned by direct supervisors, even if they had no direct awareness of the staff’s actual performance. The point was to allow executives to prune staff according to their own objectives. Liberman and another executive named Savitt had an objective of replacing men with women.

The reason I’m writing about this scenario is because it might happen to you. Your employer doesn’t love you. In all fairness, some employers are conscientious about treating their employees fairly, but competitive pressure, and pressure from investment banks, favor the ones that are ruthless. Your employer pays you money only to the extent that they need your services; if they can, they will get rid of you for any reason that’s compelling to them, often for reasons that aren’t even strictly business-related.

Off the top of my head, I’m aware of four other cases where men were fired for being men; two of them were large-scale systemic purges. I’m also aware that there were organized groups of women at Microsoft lobbying to replace male programmers with women; I would guess that it’s a popular cause in many big corporations.

To understand the risk, it might help to think about why companies would fire men to make room for more women:

  • PR points if they can frame it as “empowering women”. Since women make something like 80% of all consumer purchases, companies selling consumer products have an incentive to frame themselves as “pro-woman”.
  • Avoiding trouble from the equal opportunity commission, which tends to over-look favoritism for “protected” groups. Basically, if the feds want you to employ more X, then you can avoid trouble by employing nothing but X.
  • The recent phenomenon of putting ideology ahead of business profits. We now have activist corporate executives.
  • Misandric executives acting on their personal impulses. Political pressure to hire “feminists” into executive ranks has seeded corporate systems with literal man-haters.
  • Wishful thinking about “pay gaps”: some corporate decision-makers hope that women really are willing to work harder than a man for less pay. Aside from not being true, because as any Libertarian will tell you, everybody gets what they are worth, these strategies backfire spectacularly when women sue their employers for thinking this way.
  • The assumption that women are less ambitious than men and therefor less of a threat as rivals. I’m not so sure about this one. You can find mousy women, but there are plenty of women with fangs and claws, and for that matter, you can find mousy men too. The real problem is that performance is usually tied to aggression: you don’t usually find super-performers willing to meekly submit. More likely, someone needs to tame his or her own ego so (s)he can work with high-performers.
  • Sweetheart deals that are nothing more than legal prostitution. Aside from being the most expensive way ever conceived to get sex, these schemes create liability when the prostitute decides its time for the lawsuit windfall.

All of these motives to replace men with women have costs to the bottom line, but because the cost is transferred from the decision-maker to the stock-holder, there’s an incentive to do it anyway. Corporations tend to have a lot of problems like this one because of the way that decision-makers don’t bear the costs of their decisions.

By the way, I see no reason that companies wouldn’t also start firing employees for other personal attributes. I would guess race is next, if your race does not constitute a protected class.

One way to avoid the problem is to have a preference for working for smaller companies, which can’t afford not to make decisions for reasons that are at odds with profits, and for privately-held companies, which tend to be much more profit-oriented than publicly-held companies. Better yet, be self-employed.

For that matter, it’s a good idea to bail out from any company that starts putting social politics ahead of profits; like Yahoo!, they always end up in financial trouble.

You can also reduce your risk of getting fired by being indispensable. The mistake one of the men made who was fired from Yahoo was taking the sabbatical. Even though he had permission to do so, and was working on a report for the company, that still meant that he wasn’t contributing as much as someone else who was actively working at the company when the company decided to do a round of layoffs.

He probably didn’t realize that layoffs had been planned; the company presumably kept it a secret from employees just like they did from the state. If he would have had a little more sophistication about life, and broader horizons than just his own plans, he would have anticipated it anyway.

Another way to reduce the risk of getting fired is to be popular. First of all, bosses, like most people, tend to make decisions for emotional rather than practical reasons. You’re less likely to get fired iif your boss likes you more than another option for firing. Second, in corporate executions like the ones at Yahoo!, a typical strategy for preparing to fire someone is to socially-isolate him. It’s classic bullying. That’s easier to do if you’re the type who just does his job and keeps to himself aside from some drinks after work on rare occasion, which is true of probably most men. That’s not the way you build working relationships. What matters is the way you relate to others while you are actively working with them.

What about lawsuits? That’s not something I can advise you about, because I’m not a lawyer. It’s also not a matter in which you personally have any control: it’s up to a judge. In this particular case, I haven’t seen any news of a resolution. That means the plaintiffs are still in a bad situation. Part of the problem is that men are not generally sympathy figures; at the moment we’re more likely to be targets of hostility. I wouldn’t count on the courts to protect men from being fired for being men. Lawsuits are at best an act of desperation. It’s better to avoid the situations that lead up to one.

One thing that might help is having counsels to go to when you need advice about a work situation. That’s why I set up a forum to talk about that very topic.

Namaste! The Divine within me honors the Divine within you. I tell stories about lessons I've learned the hard way. Follow @KalkinTrivedi on Twitter.