Hacking the Layoff Process

My latest book, A Hacker’s Mind, is filled with stories about the rich and powerful hacking systems, but it was hard to find stories of the hacking by the less powerful. Here’s one I just found. An article on how layoffs at big companies work inadvertently suggests an employee hack to avoid being fired:

…software performs a statistical analysis during terminations to see if certain groups are adversely affected, said such reviews can uncover other problems. On a list of layoff candidates, a company might find it is about to fire inadvertently an employee who previously opened a complaint against a manager—a move that could be seen as retaliation, she said.

So if you’re at a large company and there are rumors of layoffs, go to HR and initiate a complaint against a manager. It’ll protect you from being laid off.

Posted on April 28, 2023 at 3:15 PM11 Comments


Bob Paddock April 28, 2023 3:32 PM

At a past company I worked at the company had its first ever mass layoff of 28 people (it was a smaller company then). We were sent to the Unemployment Office as a group.

As we were waiting for the government paper pushers to come in, we figured out that the common denominator between us all was, that we had all used the companies health insurance sometime in the last few years.

Also several young ladies that could have the possibility of filing for future maternity benefits were in the group. Those that had already filed for such benefits were in the layoff group. HR told one of them “There goes another $10,000!” when the benefit was requested; It was many years ago for that $10k price.

Not sure how to hack any of that?
It is clear that HR and Corps are not our friends.

elsie_m April 28, 2023 8:43 PM

Alternately, if you’re looking for more free time, ask your manager to prioritize you for layoffs. It may save them one awkward layoff conversation, and upper management probably doesn’t care who’s on the list. You might be eligible for notice pay, severance, and unemployment benefits, which would not be the case if you quit. And it saves you the work of putting in a year or two of bad work to get yourself on the list “naturally”, and the related risk of being fired for cause.

For a more humorous take on workplace hacking, see the 2011 talk “Hacking the Workplace: How to Make the Most with the Least”, presented by Alex Papadimoulis at Notacon 8. I couldn’t find the archive.org video (their search page has been broken since January), but it seems to be on Youtube with ID “n-DgEom3GV4”. You’ll learn how to:
* Hack your moral compass.
* Find a job that tolerates mediocre work. “If you can get a job in the government, you are all set—for many reasons, right? Not only can you blend in, but all the bureaucracy means that your boss probably doesn’t even know what form you have to fill out to get fired.”
* Manage your web of deceit to make lies more believable.
* Always look busy.

Bob Paddock, I think your examples are, at best, weak evidence of impropriety. Don’t most people use their health insurance every year, e.g. for dental cleanings, new glasses, etc.? Middle-aged people tend to be at lowest risk of layoffs, but it’s not necessarily about age per se: they’ve been there long enough to prove their worth, and not long enough to reach a really high salary. And it would be weird if none of the people getting laid off were female. I guess filing a complaint on hearing a comment like “There goes another $10,000!” would be one way to hack the situation. (Laying off young female workers is a way to hack it from the other side, and these are all good reasons why employers should not be have the responsibility of paying for parental leave and health care—it creates perverse incentives. Elsewhere, these would be government responsibilities.)

Hurf April 29, 2023 3:18 PM

Terrible advice. A complaint against your boss that’s not a slam dunk will just make you a bigger target. Even if you get one, they’ll be watching you closely. If they want you gone, they’ll twist the truth until you’re gone.

A less risky strategy would be to nonintrusively display religious affiliation. Perhaps join a religious group if they exist at your work.

Paul April 29, 2023 9:33 PM

We were all called into a room for a “staff meeting”.
In the meeting, it was explained that the contract had been cut 50%, so 50% of us would need to find other positions. It was also explained that the prime contractor was also taking 50% cuts for their people.
My boss said that if we had interest in moving to other contracts, we should let him know and he’d help. He was a good boss. Within the company, we’d just won a huge prime contract and there were hundreds of positions available on that other contract. We were prime and the prime on spinning down contract was a subcontract to use on this new contract. win-win.

Another group was hit by the same cutbacks. We shared the same meeting room, but they were on the other half of the building. Their manager placed post-it notes on the doors for the people she had decided to fire on her way to their “staff meeting”. They were “flags” for all to see … that said this: “Come see me, -M”
I suppose the good was that they were told that day they’d be fired from her group. It was quite insensitive for everyone else in the building to know what it meant thanks to the “flags” on their office doors.
Oh – we all had individual offices on that contract.

On the newer contract, I got an office mate – in an office large enough for 1 person. Fortunately, we didn’t really work in that office, expect 1-2 hrs a week. I spent most of my time in a fish-bowl lab at the customer’s campus and sometimes inside different air-gapped networks around the campus.

Both of those jobs were amazing, though I did have to work much longer on the 2nd job and was on-call 24/7/366 for about 3 yrs, unable to leave the city, since there wasn’t any backup for my role. Swore I’d never have a job like that again, which I achieved until early retirement.

Jon April 30, 2023 2:53 AM

Arguably, “Group smash’n’grab shoplifting” is an example of the poor ‘hacking’ the system.

See, as individual shoplifters, they won’t get much, and will probably get caught. However, the system is designed to catch individuals. When it’s a large group, then they stand a much better chance of getting away, with valuables. No, generally speaking*, the rich don’t indulge in massive shoplifting.

They have identified a weakness in the system, and exploited it. What more do you want?


  • With the rare exception of certain mental illnesses granted.

Brodie April 30, 2023 8:13 PM


It’s costing subways hundreds of millions now, collectively. [https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-04-19/budget-strapped-subways-get-tougher-on-turnstile-jumpers]

It’s a self-defeating solution — broken window theory. One violation leads to the next, paying customers leave and then the system deteriorates and becomes non-functional.

ResearcherZero April 30, 2023 10:37 PM

The above scheme will not work everywhere…

Eight years in prison for her role in a $105 million tax fraud conspiracy. Plutus Payroll was named after the Greek god of “abundance or wealth”.

“Lauren Cranston had a simple but central role in facilitating the conspiracies and actively took steps to conceal them, including by destroying records.”

“The fraud scheme skimmed PAYG (pay as you go) withholding tax and GST from money received from clients of payroll business Plutus Payroll. Second-tier companies holding the debt were phoenixed: the process of being liquidated, left with the debt and replaced with new companies.”

Cranston had shown no contrition and “appears still to believe that she and her co-conspirators have done nothing wrong”.

Tim Stevens May 1, 2023 3:34 PM

Terrible advice to file a spurious complaint. My wife was previously VP of HR and says that will not work.

Mister B May 5, 2023 6:58 PM

As someone who saw the layoff process for a lot of companies during the first part of the pandemic, here’s my advice. Keep as much payable PTO as possible. CFOs looked at total severance cost above all else.

Steve Gruenwald May 25, 2023 11:54 AM

This is not a new idea; it is a well-established practice, used by some employees since immediately after “whistleblower protection” concepts first emerged decades ago. There is a well-established body of law dealing with distinguishing personnel actions that just happen to be taken against a person who also has filed a complaint from actual retaliation, possibly using a “pretextual” basis for the action to mask the retaliatory intent. As Tim Stevens says, it’s “terrible advice to file a spurious complaint,” but only if it will be clear that it is spurious – which generally requires a lengthy inquiry.

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