Machines Can Now Fire People

Unless you control them, they can fire you too.

Leah Zitter
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Machines have a bad rap despite scandalous stories going around recently of them firing people. The most viral of these stories was published by Ibrahim Diallo a year after it first occurred.

Ibrahim’s Story

“It was 7 a.m. when my phone rang. Instead of an alarm, it was my recruiter disturbing me from a pleasant dream. On my way to work, I listened to the voicemail she had left, ‘Oh my God, are you okay?’”

For the next six days, Ibrahim’s week went downhill. His key card failed, his workstation locked him out, and his recruiter told him she’d received an email saying he was terminated. Both manager and director insisted there must be some mistake. The director ordered the support division to resolve the problem but received an automated response that the IT process had finalized Ibrahim’s termination. Case closed.

“After lunch, two people appeared at my desk. One was a familiar face that seemed to avoid making direct eye contact. It was Jose and his fellow security guard. He cordially informed me that he was to escort me out of the building. The director was furious," Ibrahim explained.

"They’d received a threatening email to escort me out of the building and were just doing their job. I was fired. There was nothing my manager could do about it. There was nothing the director could do about it. They stood powerless as I packed my stuff and left the building.”

Over the next three weeks, Ibrahim watched the case escalate, but no one had the power to intervene. “From time to time, they would attach a system email. It was soulless and written in red as it gave orders that dictated my fate. Disable this, disable that, revoke access here, revoke access there, escort out of premises, etc.”

Ibrahim was on a three-year contract and had worked for only eight months. He noted that his work was good. “I was receiving constant praises, I was getting along super well with everyone.” Apparently, the IT system thought otherwise.

“The system was out for blood and I was its very first victim.” The only way to stop the process was to let the system run its course and rehire Ibrahim. But by then, Ibrahim had to explain to people why he was dismissed and had to deal with distant coworkers. He missed three weeks of pay and sought another job.

Steve’s Story

Some of Ibrahim's readers related similar experiences. One such story came from “Steve” whose account was particularly piquant. Over at Hewlett Packard, the executive called for a 5% headcount reduction, which meant five of every 100 employees across all divisions were fired. The computer was programmed to execute the job. One of the affected divisions was Inkjet media which happened to be Steve’s place of work.

As Steve recounts: “One day I was working past 5 p.m. and the General Manager (GM) was on the phone with HP’s HR and the third-party firm. Somehow, his top performing sales manager had been included in the forced reduction. It appeared no one knew how this happened. The GM was saying things like, ‘You cannot fire this guy. He accounts for [some huge percentage] of sales and profits.’"

As with Ibrahim, the system had terminated the worker’s position. Nothing could be done. “The GM was perplexed, irate, incredulous. The die had been cast, the head was on the block, and the blade was in motion. The top performer was fired. I knew him. Being a top sales guy, he took it in stride. The loss was totally felt only by HP.”

Tale of the Future

Several of Ibrahim’s readers alluded to Marshall Brain’s futuristic novella, Manna. Manna was the name of an embedded computer system that hired, fired, and relentlessly drove American citizens to scrupulously fulfill an unceasing torrent for commands from start to end of their labor days. Workers from waitress to surgeons received their orders from these headphones alone.

They’d no contact with each other to save time, and workers who misunderstood or forgot any one particular detail (or were unable to work for personal reasons, including health), were fired. Since the Manna system ran the hiring and firing too, there was no one to intervene. All workplaces in this futuristic America operated on Manna, so fired employees were unilatelry barred from each and any job.

Dismissed workers had to wait five years until they could re-enter the system. The only individuals safe from Manna were those who controlled it including executives, high-powered politicians, and billionaires who earned trillions from Manna’s manipulations.

Similarities Between Manna and Ibrahim’s Tale?

Highly intelligent computers seem to be omnipresent and omnipotent to the point that managers seem powerless to stop the system. A computer fired Ibrahim. A computer fired the sales whiz. A computer called Manna fantastically destroyed America. However, it’s there that the corollaries stop.

At the end of the day, the IT systems with both Ibrahim and HP were contaminated by human error. Ibrahim discovered that a dismissed manager of a previous administration had simply stopped working once he’d been fired. One of his duties had been to renew Ibrahim’s contract in the system. The machine was only doing its job in its machine learning/algorithmic way.

The machine was flawless; it was the human that was to blame. In regards to HP, human operators would again be wise to realize that a single automation mistake may cause irreversible trouble. How about some preventions, like placing stopping points where the system needs permission to continue or can cancel the request or process?

Business owners like to bypass this step because it may lead to delays or perceived inefficiencies. Of course, all it takes is one mistake and the machines control the workplace. At that point, managers are powerless.