Privacy unicorn OneTrust faces legal backlash after mass firings

OneTrust / WIRED

On the afternoon of April 2, Jane* received a calendar invite to attend an internal meeting just before the end of her shift. When she logged on to her 15 minute appointment, she was met by a person from HR and a senior manager who said she was fired because of “poor performance”. As soon as the conversation was over, Jane’s work phone, laptop and access to remote working tools were all locked.
So far this is like any other uncomfortable firing in the age of coronavirus. But her story is identical to that of dozens of other people at privacy unicorn OneTrust. Staff watched as one by one, people who were invited to identical meetings vanished from the company’s Microsoft Teams internal group.

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Sources within the business point to 100 people – a quarter of the company’s entire headcount in London – being cut in the space of one week. Shocked team members say they asked for evidence of their poor performance and received no explanation. None of them had received prior bad performance reviews, they say, and they were not given any warning by the company that anything was amiss with the way they worked. “I had about 15 minutes to process all of this,” Jane says. “And straight after, I could contact no one.”
OneTrust, which is co-headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia and London, doubled its valuation in February 2020 to $2.7 billion after a series B round led by Coatue and Insight Partners. It’s one of a cohort of privacy management startups capitalising off the boon in regulatory efforts and the California Consumer Privacy Act that took effect earlier this year. The company employs over 1,000 people in Atlanta and London and additional offices in Bangalore,San Francisco, Melbourne, New York, São Paulo, Munich, Hong Kong and Bangkok.
Jane is one of around 30 employees who are trying to sue the company over their dismissals, represented by employment law firm Morrish Solicitors. They claim that the size and speed of the firings, and the cause given about their performance, were unfair, and that the company was trying to dodge a collective redundancy consultation by firing them individually.
If a company is planning on making over 20 people redundant in under 90 days, it has to enter into a redundancy consultation and has to inform the government.

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A dismissal for poor performance should be at the end of the road of a poor performance process ideally lasting a few months, involving a staged approach to periods of review, target setting and warnings and involving a helping hand from the business to the underperforming employee. This is best practice in all cases and an intrinsic part of a fair process for employees with over two years’ service, according to Olivia Sinfield, associate director at law firm Osborne Clarke. “Group dismissals on poor performance grounds are, therefore, rare and give rise to questions around the reason for dismissal, particularly in the current environment,” she says.
Ten former OneTrust employees who spoke to WIRED claim that their line managers were not informed of their dismissals. The emails sent were titled ‘performance review’, or ‘feedback meeting’, but gave no further details. Some staff claim that this didn’t necessarily raise red flags to them, because the culture of the business was to give “on the spot feedback”. But as more of these messages arrived, panicked rumours of layoffs started circulating in different teams.
“When we all got the messages, we were all trying to figure out what was happening,” a source says. “They were going through each department. It started two days before I was made aware that they were making people redundant.”
All of the staff affected received identical letters saying that their contracts were terminated due to under performance. Most employees – even those in their initial six-month probations – received eight weeks’ pay as part of their exit package. It is understood that two employees affected by the cuts, who were at the company for longer than two years, reached a separate settlement.

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One former employee described a slowing-down in workload before the cuts, and says that she would have had “more respect” had OneTrust admitted that the cuts were due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several former employees say that their confidence has been knocked by this experience and that they have struggled to find work since.
In an all-hands meeting in March, staff say OneTrust CEO Kabir Barday explained that the company was safeguarded from coronavirus thanks to the recent fundraising, and that jobs were not at risk. Days later, the company confirmed that it was laying off between ten and 15 per cent of its workforce.
At the time, a spokesperson said that this was due to the “economic impact and uncertainty” and that the company intended to protect as many jobs as possible in the long term. However, the people affected by cuts in London claim they were specifically told that their dismissals were not related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“When I first joined in 2019, OneTrust was on a massive recruitment drive, it got to the point where we were running out of desks” says David*, another former employee. His customer facing team was assigned five to six clients every two weeks, but when coronavirus hit, he had none. “People were trying to buy time. Management were going around asking for us to share [clients]. We knew there wasn’t enough work, and management is very trigger happy.”
Cuts are understood to have affected teams across HR, sales, editorial, engineering and technical support.
A OneTrust spokesperson says that the “unprecedented times” caused by coronavirus required the company to make “prudent business decisions in our operations, environment and staffing”, citing that London was affected by the staff cuts in March.
“The decisions were made based on performance and communicated with each individual employee in a safe, virtual manner,” the spokesperson says.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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