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Google has avoided mass layoffs so far, but employees worry their time may be coming

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2018.

Stephen Lam | Reuters

As industry-wide layoffs hit bigger tech names, some Google workers worry they’re next.

While Google has so far avoided the widespread job cuts that have hit tech companies, particularly those supported by a slumping ad market, internal anxiety is on the rise, according to documents viewed by CNBC and employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Alphabet executives have stressed the need to sharpen “focus,” bring down costs of projects and make the company 20% more efficient. There’s also been a recent change in performance reviews, and some employees point to declining travel budgets and less swag as signs that something bigger may be on the horizon.

In July, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai launched the “Simplicity Sprint” in an effort to bolster efficiency during an uncertain economic environment. Just a few miles up the road, Meta told employees this month that it’s laying off 13% of its staff, or more than 11,000 employees, as the company reckons with declining ad revenue. Snap announced a 20% cut in August, and Twitter just slashed about half its workforce under the leadership of new owner Elon Musk. Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, HP said on Tuesday it plans to lay off 4,000 to 6,000 employees over the next three years.

Google’s business hasn’t been hit as hard as many of its peers, but the combination of a potential recession, soaring inflation and rising interest rates is having a clear impact. Last month, the company said YouTube’s ad revenue shrank from a year earlier as Google generated its weakest period of growth since 2013, other than one quarter during the pandemic. Google said at the time that it would significantly reduce headcount growth in the fourth quarter.

The crypto market, which put a dent in Google’s latest results, has fallen even further with the collapse of crypto exchange FTX, leading to increased concerns about industry contagion.

‘Don’t fire us please’

Cuts at Google have already taken place around the edges.

The company canceled the next generation of its Pixelbook laptop, slashed funding to its Area 120 in-house incubator and said it would be shuttering its digital gaming service Stadia.

Concerns about terminations are mounting, at least in certain corners. And some employees are turning to memes to express their anxieties through humor.

One internal meme shared with CNBC shows a before-and-after animated character. On the before side, the figure has his hands raised with the caption “inflation pay rise!” On the after side, a frightened character sits alongside the caption, “don’t fire us please.”

Another meme has names of tech companies — “Meta, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft” — that recently conducted layoffs next to an image of a worried anime character. There were also memes created in reference to a statement last week from activist investor TCI Fund Management, which called on Pichai to cut salaries and headcount through “aggressive action.”

Activist investor call on Alphabet to cut costs amid slowing revenue

Among the workforce, Pichai found himself on the defensive in September, as he was forced to explain the company’s changing position after years of supercharged growth. Executives said at the time that there would be small cuts, and they didn’t rule out layoffs.

At a more recent all-hands meeting, a number of questions regarding the potential for layoffs were highly rated by staffers on Google’s internal question-asking system called Dory. There were also questions about whether executives mismanaged headcount.

“It appears that we added 36k full-time role YoY, increasing headcount by about 24%,” one top-rated question read. “Many teams feel like they are losing headcount, not gaining it. Where did this headcount go? In hindsight, and given concerns around productivity, should we have hired so rapidly?”

Employees wanted details following the company’s latest earnings call and comments from CFO Ruth Porat regarding possible cuts.

One question read: “Can we get some more clarity on how we’re approaching headcount for 2023? Do we have any sense of how long we need to plan for difficult headwinds?”

Other questioners asked if employees “should expect any direct consequence to our teams, direction and/or compensation to reduced profits we saw in the earnings call” and wondered, “how are we going to achieve 20% more productivity? Will refocus be enough or are we expecting layoffs?”

Change to performance reviews

Furthering employee stress levels was a recent change to performance reviews and upcoming evaluation check-ins.

Earlier this year, Google said it was ditching its long-held practice of handing out lengthy promotion packets, which were long forms employees needed to fill out and that included reviews from bosses and co-workers. The company switched to a streamlined process it calls Googler Reviews and Development (GRAD).

A Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the GRAD system was launched “to help employee development, coaching, learning and career progression throughout the year,” adding that it “helps establish clear expectations and provide employees with regular feedback.”

Google said a new system would result in higher pay, but workers say the overhaul has left more room for ambiguity in ratings at a time when the company is looking for ways to cut costs.

The planned overhaul has already run into problems. The company decided to end its use of Betterworks, a program that was supposed to help with evaluating performance, employees told CNBC. Executives said they planned to instead use a home-grown tool, but the change has come uncomfortably close to expected year-end performance checks.

A guide titled “Support Check-Ins,” which are performance reviews targeting certain employees, began appearing in internal forums. The document, viewed by CNBC, says for those who receive the review, “the current performance trajectory is headed toward, or already is in, a lower rating.”

Three steps are recommended for check-ins. The first directs workers to “breathe,” before taking in managers’ feedback. Second is, “understand the feedback,” and third is to “devise a plan.” The document says check-ins may affect 10% to 20% of staffers over the course of a year. 

Add it all up, and one big question employees are asking is — will a bunch of small cuts turn into something grander in the future?

CNBC reported last month that employees and executives clashed on the topic of cutbacks to things like swag, travel and holiday celebrations. Workers complained about a lack of transparency around travel cuts and asked why the company wasn’t saving money by cutting executive salaries.

Google engineering leaders recently began cracking down on employees’ ability to access links to the internal meme generator called Memegen, a repository of user-generated memes that has long been a part of the company’s open culture.

Last month, a Google vice president of corporate engineering said employees need to remove Memegen links from their profile pages, internally known as “Moma.” Engineering directors said in an internal message that having a Memegen link on profiles “prevents Googlers from sharpening their focus.”

Workers naturally flocked to Memegen to make fun of the decision.

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Two children and two adults survive after Tesla plunges 250 feet off California cliff

View from the helicopter during a rescue operation after a vehicle carrying two adults and two children went over a cliff in Devil’s Slide, San Mateo county, California, U.S., January 2, 2023, plunging hundreds of feet, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in this still image obtained from social media video.

CHP – Golden Gate Division | Reuters

Two adults and two children were rescued from a Tesla that plunged 250 feet off a cliff Monday morning in San Mateo County, California, officials said. 

The car was traveling southbound on the Pacific Coast Highway when it went over the cliff at Devil’s Slide, south of the Tom Lantos tunnel, and landed near the water’s edge below, the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit said. 

The car flipped and landed on its wheels in the fall, CAL FIRE/Coastside Fire Incident Commander Brian Pottenger said. Witnesses saw the accident and called 911. 

As crews were lowered down, they were able to see movement in the front seat, through their binoculars, meaning someone was alive.

“We were actually very shocked when we found survivable victims in the vehicle. So, that actually was a really hopeful moment for us,” Pottenger said. 

Fire officials called for helicopters to help hoist the survivors to safety. As they waited, firefighters rappelled to the scene and rescued the two children.

Rescue teams are seen at the scene as a Tesla with four occupants plunged over a cliff on Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Devils Slide on January 2, 2022 in San Mateo County, California, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The California Highway Patrol shared video on social media showing helicopters lower first responders to the scene to extricate and rescue two adults inside. 

All four were hospitalized. The San Mateo Sheriff’s Office said the two adults suffered non-life-threatening injuries and the two children were unharmed.

It’s not clear what caused the car to go over the cliff. CHP is handling the investigation. 

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Tesla shares tumble more than 10% following deliveries report

Tesla vehicles are shown at a sales and service center in Vista, California, June 3, 2022.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Shares of Tesla dropped 13% on Tuesday morning, a day after the electric auto maker reported fourth-quarter vehicle production and delivery numbers for 2022.

Deliveries are the closest approximation of sales disclosed by Tesla. The company reported 405,278 total deliveries for the quarter and 1.31 million total deliveries for the year. These numbers represented a record for the Elon Musk-led automaker and growth of 40% in deliveries year over year, but they fell shy of analysts’ expectations.

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According to a consensus of analysts’ estimates compiled by FactSet, as of Dec. 31, 2022, Wall Street was expecting Tesla to report around 427,000 deliveries for the final quarter of the year. Estimates updated in December, and included in the FactSet consensus, ranged from 409,000 to 433,000.

Those more recent estimates were in line with a company-compiled consensus distributed by Tesla investor relations Vice President Martin Viecha. 

Some Wall Street analysts think Tesla’s deliveries miss spells trouble for the electric vehicle maker, but others see a buying opportunity for the company in 2023.

Baird analyst Ben Kallo, who recently named Tesla a top pick for 2023, maintained an outperform rating and said he would remain a buyer of the stock ahead of the company’s earnings report, which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

“Q4 deliveries missed consensus but beat our estimates,” he said in a Tuesday note. “Importantly, production increased ~20% q/q which we expect to continue into 2023 as gigafactories in Berlin and Austin continue to ramp.”

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they consider the delivery report to be an “incremental negative,” and view Tesla as a company that is “well positioned for long-term growth.” Goldman reiterated its buy rating on the stock in a Monday note and said that making vehicles more affordable in a challenging macroeconomic environment will be a “key driver of growth.”

“We believe key debates from here will be on whether vehicle deliveries can reaccelerate, margins and Tesla’s brand,” the analysts said.

Shares of Tesla suffered an extreme yearlong sell-off in 2022, prompting CEO Musk to tell employees in late December not to be “too bothered by stock market craziness.”

Musk has blamed Tesla’s declining share price in part on rising interest rates. But critics point to his rocky $44 billion Twitter takeover as a bigger culprit for the slide.

Morgan Stanley analysts said they think the company’s share price weakness is a “window of opportunity to buy.”

“Between a worsening macro backdrop, record high unaffordability, and increasing competition, there are hurdles for all auto companies to overcome in the year ahead,” they said in a note Tuesday. “However, within this backdrop we believe TSLA has the potential to widen its lead in the EV race, as it leverages its cost and scale advantages to further itself from the competition.”

CNBC’s Lora Kolodny and Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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Tesla makes China boss Tom Zhu its highest-profile executive after Elon Musk

Tom Zhu Xiaotong, Tesla’s current executive in charge of China, speaks as a new Tesla experience store opens on Aug. 18, 2015 in Hangzhou, China.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

Tesla’s China chief Tom Zhu has been promoted to take direct oversight of the electric carmaker’s U.S. assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe, according to an internal posting of reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

The Tesla posting showed that Zhu’s title of vice president for Greater China had not changed and that he also retained his responsibilities as Tesla’s most senior executive for sales in the rest of Asia as of Tuesday.

The move makes Zhu the highest-profile executive at Tesla after Chief Executive Elon Musk, with direct oversight for deliveries in all of its major markets and operations of its key production hubs.

The reporting lines for Zhu would keep Tesla’s vehicle design and development — both areas where Musk has been heavily involved — separate while creating an apparent deputy to Musk on the more near-term challenges of managing global sales and output.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Reuters reviewed the organizational chart that had been posted internally by Tesla and confirmed the change with two people who had seen it. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

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Zhu and a team of his reports were brought in by Tesla late last year to troubleshoot production issues in the United States, driving an expectation among his colleagues then that he was being groomed for a bigger role.

Zhu’s appointment to a global role comes at a time when Musk has been distracted by his acquisition of Twitter and Tesla analysts and investors have urged action that would deepen the senior executive bench and allow him to focus on Tesla.

Under Zhu, Tesla’s Shanghai plant rebounded strongly from Covid lockdowns in China.

Tesla said on Monday that it had delivered 405,278 vehicles in the fourth quarter, short of Wall Street estimates, according to data compiled by Refinitiv.

The company had delivered 308,600 vehicles in the same period a year earlier.

The Tesla managers reporting to Zhu include: Jason Shawhan, director of manufacturing at the Gigafactory in Texas; Hrushikesh Sagar, senior director of manufacturing at Tesla’s Fremont factory; Joe Ward, vice president in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Troy Jones, vice president of North America sales and service, according to the Tesla notice on reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

Tesla country managers in China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand continued to report to Zhu, the notice showed.

Zhu does not have a direct report at Tesla’s still-ramping Berlin plant, but a person with knowledge of the matter said responsibility for that operation would come with the reporting line for Amsterdam-based Ward. Ward could not be immediately reached for comment.

Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, joined Tesla in 2014. Before that he was a project manager at a company established by his MBA classmates at Duke University, advising Chinese contractors working on infrastructure projects in Africa.

During Shanghai’s two-month Covid lockdown, Zhu was among the first batch of employees sleeping in the factory as they sought to keep it running, people who work with him have said.

Zhu, a no-fuss manager who sports a buzz cut, favors Tesla-branded fleece jackets and has lived in a government-subsidized apartment that is a 10-minute drive from the Shanghai Gigafactory. It was not immediately clear whether he would move after his promotion.

He takes charge of Tesla’s main production hubs at a time when the company is readying the launch of Cybertruck and a revamped version of its Model 3 sedan. Tesla has also said it is developing a cheaper electric vehicle but has not provided details on that plan.

When Tesla posted a picture on Twitter last month to celebrate its Austin, Texas, plant hitting a production milestone for its Model Y, Zhu was among hundreds of workers smiling on the factory floor.

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Allan Wang, who was promoted to vice president in charge of sales in China in July, was listed as the legal representative for the operation in registration papers filed with Chinese regulators in a change by the company last month.

Tesla board member James Murdoch said in November the company had recently identified a potential successor to Musk without naming the person. Murdoch did not respond to a request for comment.

Electrek previously reported that Zhu would take responsibility for U.S. sales, delivery and service.

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