For years, employees of Big Tech’s largest companies could count on one constant: a rising share price. That brought financial gains that made their jobs difficult to leave, even as their companies went through the wringer over privacy, antitrust and other contentious issues.
But not anymore.
Shares of the six biggest technology companies have dropped at least 11% in recent months — and in some cases much more — wiping out a total of more than $2 trillion in value.
Much of the tech world’s attention, like that of the larger public, has been focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the fate of colleagues and associates in the region. But in the weeks and months that preceded the war, the share-price reversal left some employees uneasy about their fortunes and increased the odds of a rush to the exits, according to tech recruiters and people at these companies, many of whom asked not to be identified discussing private matters.
And companies have had to rely more on other perks to retain staff, including offering more plain-old cash. At the same time, many of the biggest tech companies are beginning to ask employees to return to the office, creating yet another source of tension — and an opportunity for startups with a work-anywhere approach to lure away staff. In a memo to Apple employees, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook acknowledged that its April 11 return-to-office deadline could be an “unsettling change” for some.
Inside Amazon, employees have started talking openly about their compensation, a practice long considered taboo at the buttoned-up company. Meta Platforms, meanwhile, relaxed its remote work rules and has tried attracting employees with the chance to tackle futuristic projects tied to the metaverse. Still, one employee confessed that colleagues felt “pretty glum” after watching their wealth evaporate overnight.
“All companies are wrestling with this,” said Amanda Richardson, CEO of CoderPad, a software firm that focuses on hiring. After stock dips, many firms resort to paying higher salaries, she said. But that only makes rivals up the ante. According to Richardson, the annual pay for tech engineers has risen as much as 30% in the past year.
“It’s a treadmill,” she said. “I don’t know how sustainable that is, but here we are.”
Historically, major tech companies have relied on the steady windfalls from restricted stock grants to retain talent. Tatiana Becker, owner of NIAH Recruiting, has worked on behalf of smaller companies trying to poach from giants like Amazon. Usually, the pitch went well, until the recruits named their price. “No startup can really match that,” she said. “Those are some pretty heavy golden handcuffs.”
But turmoil in the markets might change that, enticing more technologists to ditch the comforts of big companies. “We’re probably going to start hearing from those people again,” Becker said.
Amazon wants to avoid that. On Feb. 7, the e-commerce giant doubled its maximum base salary for employees to $350,000, citing a “particularly competitive labor market.” Becker said she reliably sees offers elsewhere as high as $500,000.
Many Amazon employees are waiting eagerly to see how seismic this change will be in April, when the company normally reviews its pay packages. Some there have interpreted the sudden pay hike as a sign that the company is losing leverage. For years, it made up for below-average pay and longer vesting periods with a reliably soaring stock.
Amazon has already caved in other areas since the pandemic began. Initially, the company wanted workers back in the office. But Amazon has since postponed an official return date and surrendered the decision for this policy to managers, giving staff a flexibility that may compensate for lower pay. “I might make $25,000 less a year, but I can have a life,” said one Amazon employee, who asked not to be identified. “Amazon can’t set the demands anymore.”
The Seattle-based company declined to comment.
Amazon shares have slid more than 20% since hitting a record high in July. Other companies have suffered a similar hangover following a pandemic-fueled boom for tech stocks.
Apple and Microsoft are down more than 10% from their highs, as is Google owner Alphabet. But Meta, the recently renamed parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, suffered the biggest rout. It has lost nearly half of its value since September. One analyst declared that tech stocks are now stuck in “growth purgatory.”
Aiming to be less dependent on stock to retain employees, Alphabet tweaked a bonus plan in October to remove a $6 million cap for cash bonuses, according to a filing. (Microsoft and Meta have introduced similar bonus plans.) Still, it may be hard to match the lure of a rising stock price. For many Alphabet executives, stock grants put annual compensation packages above $1 million, according to two people familiar with the figures. A Google spokeswoman said the company pays “among the top of the local markets.”
To recruit away from the likes of Google and Amazon, many smaller firms have trumpeted remote-work policies as a perk. Startups also offer the chance to work at a business that’s not contending with government oversight or scandal. That could be a particularly alluring message for people at Meta, which is facing a federal antitrust case and a litany of potential new regulations. “I’m glad I’m not a recruiter at Facebook today,” Richardson said.
A Meta spokesman pointed out that the company finished the year with nearly 72,000 full-time employees, an increase of 23% over 2020, but declined to comment further.
In recent weeks, Meta employees have started looking for silver linings in the company’s cascading stock price. Some staff have welcomed the opportunity to “buy the dip,” and others are taking solace in the likelihood that the next batch of internal stock awards — scheduled for this month — will include more shares given the lower price.
During one meeting at Meta, some employees raised the possibility that the stock nosedive might demonstrate that the social network doesn’t hold a market monopoly, according to one person present. If so, a staffer suggested, perhaps the government might ease off of its case.
Congressional legislation has targeted tech companies worth more than $600 billion. Recently, Meta was worth $544.6 billion.