The Dark Underbelly of Your Company's Culture
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
A promotional photo for 2004’s “Mean Girls” movie
I want to tell you a secret I haven’t shared with many: there’s a Harvard Business School case study written by my former professor and mentor, Brooks Holtom, about an unfortunate incident that took place at Social Tables four years ago.
While the company’s name (“FtT”) and employee names (“Erik” is me) were obfuscated in the case study to protect everyone’s privacy, the situation it describes is very real. This is the first time I’m publicly sharing not just what happened but also how I screwed up and what I would have done differently.
I’m sharing this now because culture, in a fully remote environment, is even more fragile and leaders need to pay even closer attention to it.
In late 2016, right after Social Tables had raised its Series B, we found out that five employees were using a private Slack channel to not only share tactics on how to avoid doing work but also to disparage colleagues regularly. In one week alone they exchanged over 1,000 lines of chat and maligned nearly 50 teammates (examples below; names obfuscated/withheld).
"He’s a nice guy... but such an idiot. And he looks like he slept in those clothes... all week."
"Coworker Y? No way. His cheap cologne arrives minutes before he does, his girlfriend of the week is mean, and I think he has it in for you... not me."
"Her PowerPoint deck was hideous. I did better than that when I was a freshman... in high school. LOL. Probably took her 2 weeks. Ugh."
"Based on her feminist manifesto, I would not be the least bit surprised to find she has a girlfriend or two or three... to each his/her/whatever own."
"She needs a serious makeover. Like those guys on House Flippers say... gonna need a lot of work. Can’t put enough lipstick on this pig."
"Ever notice how Coworker Y always dresses like Erik? Upwardly mobile? You betcha."
Their communication was nonstop: from when they got in until when they left for the day. It included colluding on tanking a workplace survey, admitting to ignoring customer calls, and conspiring to leave work early.
"OMG, I just destroyed FtT in the Idaho Best Places to Work Survey. If we all nail FtT, there is no way they win an award. No way. Sad face for Anika."
"If I have to smile for more than a minute tonight at the FtT Happy Hour, I’m gonna puke. Save me. How can I get out of this? Not EVEN worth it for the free alcohol."
"I am sure the cleaning lady makes more than I do. How in the heck do you think Coworker X got her raise? Does she have pix of someone on the exec team?"
"I just let Client Y roll into voice mail. That’ll kill him. I told him to call at this time... that I’d be free. This account has big potential, but he’s an idiot. I hate explaining things to him 4X. Just not feelin’ it right now. Maybe later."
"3-hour lunch today! All in??? My inbox is overflowing and I just can’t deal. Maybe it’ll go away if we are out long enough."
"My new bed is being delivered between 6 and 8 tonight. Gonna need to leave work by 3:30 to cover the 10-block walk. Anyone want to stop for a couple of drinks on the way home? Can you sneak out today?"
“I knew it!” I thought to myself as I read the nauseating transcripts. For months, my instincts had been telling me that this group of employees was toxic and disengaged. It didn’t take much to observe that. Apart from being completely unapproachable and inhospitable to anyone outside of their squad, they were always coworking, sharing lunch daily, and huddling at company events.
As I reflected over the discovery that evening, reality set in. The tools we introduced to cultivate community and instill belonging were being used for the opposite purpose: to strengthen a cancerous clique. We quickly fired the five offenders, held a companywide town hall to share some details of the event, and attempted to move on.
The truth is that this event and how I squandered the opportunity to strengthen our culture through it continues to haunt me.
Back then, I wanted employees to like me. I feared that if they knew we read the Slack messages of departing employees (what led to this discovery), they would feel like their privacy was violated. Therefore, we didn’t share all of the the details of what led to the mass firing. This was a mistake.
It was a mistake because safety doesn’t come from being able to say whatever you want to say anonymously. It comes from knowing the company–the organization that should have your back–won’t tolerate derogatory behavior. Fixing the toxicity that was seeping into our culture should have been my primary concern. Instead, I focused on others’ perceptions of me.
In any workplace, there’s a hierarchy of needs and it is a leader’s responsibility to meet them. Creating a safe environment supersedes ensuring absolute privacy. I, as CEO, shouldn’t have to make excuses when it comes to ensuring the safety of my employees even if it means violating their workplace privacy (which legally doesn’t exist, btw).
Instead of focusing on appeasing my teammates, I should have reiterated our founding principle of hospitality and all of the positive things that come with it. This was an opportunity to reestablish hospitality’s role in our culture and a zero tolerance policy for anyone that violates it.
Today, with work being fully remote (spoiler alert: I’m against 100% distributed teams but that’s for another day), I imagine that such an unfortunate scenario is even more probable and less manageable. This is because without in-person interactions, leaders can’t rely on “the smell of the place” or on observing hundreds of daily micro-behaviors to sniff out cultural detractors.
Since Slack is even more indispensable than it was just a few months ago, leaders must be even more deliberate in ensuring communication tools are used by their teams for good and not for evil.