Finding the right corporate tone for a major layoff can’t be easy.
But Microsoft may have walked away from the key this week. On the eve of Wednesday’s announcement of 10,000 layoffs, the Redmond-based tech giant hosted rock star Sting at an “intimate” event with Microsoft’s top executives at Davos, the chic annual get-together global bigwigs in Switzerland, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“It was an intimate gathering of about 50 people, including the company’s most senior executives, who were able to spend the evening listening to” Sting, a 71-year-old blonde rocker and actor, reported the Journal, citing “people knowledge of the event.”
The timing, according to the Journal, was “a sour note to some [Microsoft] employees,” who would learn hours later that the company was cutting 5% of its workforce, including 878 workers in the Seattle area, as part of a series of post-pandemic cost-cutting measures.
The cuts, CEO Satya Nadella would explain in a blog post, were necessary at a time when “some parts of the world are in recession and others are anticipating one”.
The awkwardness of Sting’s then-cut timing quickly went viral, with numerous riffs on songs by Sting and his former band, The Police.
“The message in a bottle was you’re fired,” read a tweetreferencing the 1979 police hit “Message in a Bottle”.
Other reactions were more serious. “The optics here are not good,” tweeted Angus Norton, who describes himself as a former vice president of Microsoft. “I’m a big fan of Satya Nadella, but that’s really bad executive symbolism,” added Columbia University business expert Rita Gunther McGrath.
“There’s not much more to Marie Antoinette than that,” concluded Steve Malloy, attorney and Fox News contributor. “Dive.”
Certainly, the events of Davos “are planned well in advance, which makes it difficult to modify them”, notes the Journal. But at least one public relations expert said a company with as many years in the spotlight as Microsoft might have anticipated the backlash better.
Although Sting’s “booking to perform at Davos was probably made months ago, the decisions and talks about downsizing weren’t made yesterday either,” said Lawrence Parnell, director of the graduate program in strategic public relations at George Washington University.
Microsoft did not respond to questions about the event.
Others were happy to fill in, however.
“When the world falls apart, you make the most of what’s still there,” noted one online commenter, referring to the 1980 police hit of the same name.
But the most relevant observation could have come from a German participant in Davos: “Even in times of crisis, Davos Man does not stop partying.”