Telling someone they’re fired isn’t the time to pull out an in-house nickname


Chris Hyams of Indeed. Photo: Frank McGrath

Adrian Weckler

When does a tech demonym switch from being motivating to dystopian?

Maybe it’s when it’s applied to you when you’re being laid off.

Last week, Indeed boss Chris Hyams opened his grim layoffs letter to staff as if it was a monthly food update.

“Indeedians…” he started.

He then explained how sad losing your job must be, before telling canned staff about his own pain – a 25pc cut in his (enormous) pay.

Telling someone they’re fired isn’t best done on a branded beanbag

There’s a time for morale-building, comradely nicknames. But there’s a time when they should be discreetly parked. Would Hyams refer to someone who died in a company accident as an Indeedian, when reporting the issue or informing colleagues.

I believe he wouldn’t.

Hyams is not the only one to awkwardly keep faith with clubby nicknames in a time of upsetting news.

Eric Mosley, the boss of Irish unicorn firm Workhuman, also referred to laying off “Humans” (the company’s demonym for Workhuman staff) in last week’s major firing round.

Workhuman specialises in HR processes and staff benefits; it’s a relative specialist in empathy among tech firms. I’m not sure Mosley’s use of a playful ‘Humans’ tag when talking about canning them will be appreciated too much, though.

Even Google’s Sundar Pichai – normally a lot more sober and measured than his counterparts – addressed his January layoffs memo to “Googlers”.

It’s worth noting that this appreciation of the difference in when to deploy demonyms and when to hold off is understood clearly by some other tech firms currently firing people.

In explaining to staff why his company was embarking on a second wave of layoffs, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy didn’t once refer to ‘Amazonians’. Instead, he used “teammates”, “roles” and “employees”.

Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t dare use the company term ‘Metamates’ in his long, detailed blogpost about Meta’s second layoff round. Instead, it was “team members”, “contributors” and “employees”.

And Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong knew way better than to commiserate with ‘Coinbaes’ (a lesser-used term, to be fair) when telling so many of them they would be fired.

When you’re building a startup, a sense of common cause can help

It could be that these particular tech companies are more used to being battered publicly, and have developed more highly-tuned professional antennae on how to avoid insulting people through HR language.

But it could also simply be basic common sense; a realisation that big life moments – like losing your job – transcend your company’s in-house cult.

In other words, telling someone they’re fired isn’t best done on a branded beanbag.

Does this mean that tech demonyms are likely to fade in 2023, if the year is defined by further layoffs?

Probably not. While they may not be the thing they once were, tech demonyms are still fairly ubiquitous in tech companies.

Venerable old ones – like ‘Googlers’ (or ‘Nooglers’ for new Google staff) and ‘Microsofties’ set the template.

Some of them (‘Yahoos’ comes to mind) have never been fortunate. Others, such as ‘Pinployees’, sound cringeworthy.

In Ireland, for any startups that have them, it’s often just adding an ‘s’ or ‘ers’ (like ‘Stripes’).

I’ve often heard founders – thoughtful ones I respect – defend such monikers. They argue that when you’re trying to build something with intensity, especially in a startup, a sense of common cause can be critical.

That general point of identity and association is a fairly universal one. People like joining clubs. Ask any Whovian, Trekkie or Swiftie.

One might also argue that addressing staff by the moniker you usually use is simply showing consistency and respect to the demonym. Why have it in the first place, if it’s just for shallower company updates? Wouldn’t ditching it suggest it is exactly what cynics decry it as – a disposable accessory?

There may even be those on the HR and marketing team who would argue that the company has invested significant time, effort and capital in developing a culture that is reflected in such monikers, that its continuity – even in bad times – might be reassuring to other staff.

I don’t know, though.

To me, it seems that there’s a time and place for all of this. When you’re telling someone they may lose their visa to stay in the country because you’re making them redundant, is it a comfort to be addressed by a clubby nickname?

For some, maybe. For others, it risks veering into mockery – a tribute to your time at a cosplay cult.