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Klarna’s laid-off workers are the latest casualty of tech’s cult of personality

As with other rise-and-fall tech stories, like WeWork’s, “helpful optimist” leaders can have a god and a savior complex rolled into one.

Klarna’s laid-off workers are the latest casualty of tech’s cult of personality
[Photo: Getty Images]

Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski, the figure behind the buy-now, pay-later online shopping revolution, has sparked an outcry after he publicly posted a list of employees that Klarna had laid off. Last week, the Swedish fintech firm let 10% of its workforce go—about 700 employees in the United States and Europe—joining a number of tech players that have announced hiring freezes or job cuts as fears of a recession mount.

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On both Twitter and LinkedIn, Siemiatkowski praised the work of his former employees and linked to a Google Sheet that contained contact details for about 600 of them, created as an outreach tool for recruiters by a coworker who survived the layoffs. Klarna tells Fast Company these workers filled this spreadsheet out with their own information, which included their names, old job titles, locations, and (initially) personal email addresses.

According to Klarna, the spreadsheet’s creator circulated the link and then the document “organically spread within Klarna.” “Sebastian heard about this from other Klarna employees, who shared the sheet internally and on social media,” a spokesperson says. “He decided to highlight it on his own public channels to increase visibility across his expansive network of employers and recruiters.” (Siemiatkowski clarified on Twitter yesterday morning that “I am simply sharing something they started.”)

He seemed convinced he was doing these workers a favor. “I hope everyone out there understands what a goldmine this document is,” he wrote. “Some recruiters should probably ignore LinkedIn or other sourcing channels for a few days and put all their energy into this list. I am sure these people will not be available for long.”

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The hitch here is that it’s unlikely the workers expected their ex-CEO would blast out a form with their private contact information to his tens of thousands of LinkedIn and Twitter followers.

After Siemiatkowski’s LinkedIn post went up, someone in the comments noted that the Google Sheet contained hundreds of ex-workers’ email addresses, and that perhaps publishing them was “not so smart.” The spreadsheet’s creator responded that he had never expected the document to get this much visibility. “I have gone ahead and removed the email column completely,” he added.

The comments on Siemiatkowski’s LinkedIn post capture the debate over whether it was appropriate for a CEO publicly blast out a list of laid-off employees.

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To be sure, some commenters were fans (“10 for originality—I’ve never seen something like this before,” “this shows your warmth and devotion for the affected people”), but many others were furious, arguing that he’d added insult to injury (even injury to injury) by essentially doxxing workers after letting them go. “This is so tone-deaf I can’t even believe it,” one wrote. “No matter how you look at it,” another said, the move reflects “a careless attitude to company building. . . There are many examples where downsizing has been handled in a respectful way towards the individual. I hope you learn from this and mature as a company.”

Grow now, pay later

Klarna has many of the cult-of-personality markings of a typical tech unicorn. It has been growing at breakneck speed, gobbling up smaller companies, and gunning to IPO, all while clocking record losses. (The layoffs were a course correction to right-size the company.) Meanwhile, Siemiatkowski has built an image as a visionary fintech genius who worked his way up from impoverished to billionaire before age 40. That sort of drive can build a company and make a leader irresistibly magnetic.

But as with other rise-and-fall tech stories, like WeWork’s, “helpful optimist” leaders can have a god and a savior complex rolled into one, convincing them that problems they create (expanding too fast, over hiring, and losing money) are problems only they can resolve (blasting out the names and contact information of workers Klarna had to let go, without asking permission). Months ago, Siemiatkowski and his wife let WSJ Magazine run a feature on the “attention-getting” Italian-style villa they’d just remodeled in Stockholm “while Klarna grows globally.” In it, there’s a quote from Skype cofounder Niklas Zennström, who’s known Siemiatkowski for years: “You could tell he’s going to do anything to win.”

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Ultimately, there are many ways a CEO can help laid-off workers, but publicly posting a spreadsheet with their names and contacts on social media probably isn’t the wisest one. It’s got a strong performative whiff, and could even leave the workers vulnerable to harassment and scams.

Meanwhile, some ex-Klarna employees say Siemiatkowski publishing their personal emails wasn’t necessarily the worst part: After all, that doc was floating around social media before his post. Rather, they’re reportedly more upset over the alleged mishandling of the layoffs, which, according to reports on social media, were not very well communicated. To quote one employee who spoke with a popular LinkedIn user on the day of the cuts: “I have never seen a layoff as disorganized and poorly executed as how Klarna is doing it.”

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