Workplace Culture: When It Gets Carried ‘Away’​

Last year, screenshots of internal Slack messages from the New York office at Away, the travel startup, made their way into the media, primarily reported by The Verge. The reports included testimony from former employees denouncing both the company’s workplace culture and the management style of then CEO Steph Korey as toxic. Steph apologised and after apparently stepping away from her CEO role (and the company altogether), now remains as Co-CEO alongside Stuart Haselden.

Workplace culture is kind of my bag; professionally it’s among my areas of expertise and also something I geek out about. I was especially interested in what was reportedly going down at Away’s global HQ in New York because through my company, Black Unicorn, I’ve carried out work for Away focusing on both talent and culture in their burgeoning European teams, where the teams weren’t yet established, nor the culture. Now, I didn’t contribute to the New York HQ’s People Operations strategy, as Black Unicorn’s sweet spot is early stage startups that have headcounts of around 50 or fewer. We also work with growth stage startups expanding internationally, in which case we only work to establish the new international market.

After processing the reports and the subsequent dominant narratives surrounding them, two things especially jumped out at me:`

  1. The alarming trend of startup brands being outed in the press for the apparent dissonance between their glossy consumer brands and the underbelly of their not so glossy workplace culture. Uber, ThirdLove, Bumble, WeWork, Culture Trip, THINX and Everlane have all found themselves in the headlines for these reasons. Audrey Gelman’s The Wing is the most recent startup to make the headlines – my thoughts on that are formulating so expect an article touching on that before long…
  2. How much the discourse following the reported problems at Away completely missed the point and focused on things other than the central issue that deserved examination; workplace culture.

So, inevitably, I have thoughts. Below, I’ll highlight and contest the three most prominent narratives that eschewed addressing the primary issue. Then I’ll address the wider trend we’re seeing of glossy startups apparently not keeping the same energy they have for their brand when it comes to their workplace culture. Are you sitting comfortably? Here goes.

Narrative #1 – “Don’t Believe Everything You Read” (Don’t Believe Victims)

Maybe the most egregious take I read. It’s a harmless enough message we teach children so they learn to critically analyse things for themselves but in this context, it waves away any emphasis on the accountability of a powerful company while legitimising a lack of empathy towards workers (who are far less powerful).

As mentioned, WeWork has taken a pounding from the media on all fronts recently (including the workplace culture front). I used to work for WeWork so while I was still there I saw a lot and I have friends who stayed longer than I did who saw even more. Not a single thing I’ve personally heard or read (which is most things!) on WeWork has made me shout out “LIES!” If anything, distance from the chaos of working there means that as I listen to the podcasts and read the articles, my eyes widen in bewilderment while I deep just how mad so much of what happened was and how being so relentlessly stressed meant I didn’t even properly process it all while I worked there.

I say this to make the point that my small sample size (but significant example) of experience suggests that in instances like this, I am inclined towards believing what I read. Culturally, we often lean towards seeing people who speak up on various issues (in the workplace and beyond) as “haters” who “couldn’t cut it”. I think we need to aim to cut that shit out and address the uncomfortable issues raised, not sweep them under the carpet. That way, we embrace the possibility to grow and become better.

Narrative #2 – Trial by “Twitter Mob”

This hot take suggested that the initial decision for Steph Korey to leave her role as CEO was a knee-jerk response to the “Twitter Mob”. The implication being that “woke” zealots on Twitter threatening to “cancel” Away drove decision-making more than the company’s principles or a rigorous investigation of what had been reported.

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We increasingly seem to be mired in a Culture War. Those entrenched in traditional values and who overwhelmingly dwell in the suburbs or countryside face off against those wedded to contemporary value systems and tend to reside in metropolitan areas. Both parties tie their identity to their respective values and neither has really managed to forge a discourse where they can strive to genuinely understand the other. A symptom of that war is that it’s in vogue for some to sling mud at “cancel culture” or the mob for their trials by outrage. Again it’s too simplified a take. In principle, maligning all people who seek fairness and equality while holding people and organisations who fall short of that is… daft. 

But the real issue is whether companies respond to issues like the ones Away has faced from a position of principle or not. Too often, instead of making a principled choice in response to a crisis, companies often respond guided by this Sophie’s choice of PR: who are we prepared to piss off and who are we going to bet on? How loud will Twitter’s rage get and can we ride it out? What choice will most significantly impact our bottom line?

Take Nike’s endorsement of Colin Kaepernick (side note: an outcome I support). Let’s not be under any illusions that the strategic decision made there fundamentally came down to whether Nike were prepared to upset Americans who maligned Kap (while backing progressives who supported him), or the opposite. Again, who are we prepared to piss off and who are we going to bet on? I speculate that a large part of that decision-making will have come down to who Nike saw as their core current and future customer; who will be buying their products for the next 20 years? It’s actually a pretty obvious choice, when you think of it like this, and I’ll bet that if the numbers they ran indicated a different result that made their decision commercially too high-risk, they would have abstained.

Principle should guide decisions like the one Away and Steph faced. Led by answers to questions like the ones below:

  • What are your company values and what workplace environment and culture do you aim to create? Do we believe the company fell short of upholding these? If not, do we feel that the company values need to evolve to address a blind spot that has been revealed? Or do we stand in our truth that we don’t view this as misconduct? If yes…
  • Do we believe our CEO operated in a way inconsistent with the above? If so, did any misconduct go so far that the CEO should be removed from their job? If not, do we have faith that our CEO can grow so that their conduct is at the level expected going forward? Can we provide the support they will require to do this? If not, how do we identify, recruit and support the person who can?

Chasing the proverbial football of whatever affects your bottom line (Twitter Mobs or otherwise) is asking for trouble. Every single person reading this (and yours truly) has made decisions based on short-term preservation rather than principle but every human needs a code and where our privilege allows, we should all strive to act in accordance with ours. Companies that have built a brand on being human-centric and unlike traditional corporates aren’t exempt from this.

Narrative #3 People are Buying Away Anyway

OK, this is the hot-take that probably annoyed me the most (just because it’s sooooo lazy). 

Firstly, there are brand-led companies and there are branded companies. For example, The Wing is a brand-led company that has a clear identity as a haven and community of women who can thrive together (in our patriarchal society that systemically adversely impacts womxn in various ways, this is a significant thing). Uber is a branded company. They have a glossy brand but they are a utility app with no meaningful identity (and that’s fine). 

Consumers connect to a brand-led company emotionally and have confidence that there are certain things it will and won’t do. So if Uber mistreats its womxn employees, that sucks but I still need a ride to the airport. If The Wing mistreats their womxn employees, that’s a betrayal that means many of their customers will demand accountability and growth and some just might not f*ck with them any more.

Away’s IG is undeniably cool AF. They are a cool brand and their product is solid (I own two Away suitcases and a bag). But brand-led, they ain’t, making the hot take in the subheading redundant. Customers need to take luggage with them when they travel and few are so emotionally connected to Away that a bonfire in Central Park burning all Away suitcases is necessary catharsis in processing the betrayal.

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Most importantly though, the inference that reportedly having a toxic workplace culture and leadership doesn’t matter as long as you’re selling out your product is almost meaningless IMO.

The Real Tea is…

…that there was an opportunity to examine the issue implicit in the fall-out, and that was of workplace culture. No one high-profile that I saw led this grown-up conversation, examined this or suggested how we could move forward (tbf, Courier magazine recently shared a perspective on this so shout out to them). Instead the prominent narratives that came our way were that you can sell your product in spite of scandal; and Twitter mobs are puerile, don’t bother listening to them and don’t believe everything you read in the papers. All of them too simplified a take.

There are lessons to be heeded by all startups (especially the brand-led ones) that are values-led, have glossy consumer brands and present themselves as human-centric. No doubt, building success through glossy consumer branding and creating customer experiences consistent with that branding means your company stands out from the crowd of traditional companies and there is definitely an under-served customer who wants the connection you’re selling. But that customer is increasingly well-informed and vigilant in holding your company to the high standards you’re setting. To those customers, those standards extend beyond only product and brand. They apply across your entire business and the workplace culture of the humans that build your startup is high up on the list of things those customers pay attention to. 

Moreover, workplace culture is likely to be the new currency in attracting and keeping the best talent so investment in this side of your company is essential.

Ladies, Gentlemen, and Non-Binaries of The Court, My Closing Remarks

The cost to us not having the messy discussions that actually matter is that we don’t take the opportunity to grow – meaning history repeats itself. With that in mind, below are the key discussion points I think should have been put forward in light of the reporting on Away.

Firstly, does what was shown in those Slack messages, and reported beyond that, constitute bullying? The short answer is definitely yes. But if you’re Scott, the insecure overachiever with an MBA, an Ivy League education and were an ex-Management Consultant from McKinsey or Bain, that’s not bullying, that’s just Tuesday afternoon. Louis Litt’s character in the early seasons of legal drama Suits is an example of what we’re talking about here.

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If you’re Brandon from Wyoming, who falls in love with a startup’s super-cool IG account, moves to NY after a friend who works for that startup recommended you for a job there and you now work in that company’s CX team in your first job out of college, it definitely sits squarely in the bullying category. I do think we need to divest from every standard interaction requiring smiley emojis or kisses to coddle the recipient AND we should be moving away from the bullish and cut-throat. We can be kind and direct in communications without having to be cheerleaders performing permanent faux positivity (as is often the case in startups). Not least because it’s no secret that workplace satisfaction helps with staff retention productivity and creates ambassadors for the brand: it’s good for business. But also, if you’re selling yourself as the new guard of cool and fresh, and Brandon’s joining the team, well, he definitely didn’t sign up to be bullied. 

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Should CEOs of companies that have raised close to $100 million be managing a CX team? Spoiler alert: no. Why? Many founders are addicted to work and are perfectionists whose identities are tied up in their success at work (there’s usually some trauma that causes this – something I’ll likely explore in an article in the future). These Founders are often visionaries, gifted salespeople, polymaths and exceptional individual contributors who can get a company off the ground single-handedly but often they make for pretty poop managers. They can lack empathy towards people in the workplace who don’t work in the way they do (I confess that as a Founder myself, I’m learning this the hard way and on the fly – being a manager as an employee is a different ball game to being one as a Founder). It can be challenging to find the empathy when others don’t deliver results at your relentless pace. Add the additional relentless stress from investors to grow and that makes for a potentially volatile situation. All of us are more likely to snap at people when we’re under stress and there’s a lot of stress here! We should be figuring out management training that mitigates these trends, especially for those who are inexperienced and may have never been a Founder / CEO before. 

In the case of a Founder / CEO managing a CX team, the practical solution should probably be that a COO reports into the CEO, the COO manages a Head of CX and they manage the CX team. This would be part of sound organisational structure. 

We should also be asking ourselves if Founders’ statuses as celebrities are helpful, given this trend of having an unhealthy relationship with work. If the aforementioned cheerleader culture is in place, who in the company advises the Founder consultatively and executes on realising the vision of the workplace culture that is consistent with and complements the consumer brand and experience that Founder is at the forefront of creating? Who challenges the Founder in a way that adds value and applies necessary friction only when the company is “moving fast and breaking things” especially when those things tend to be humans?

Crucially, are Founders encouraged to seek therapy that might specifically address the underlying source of an unbending addiction to work? Not just leadership training, not just mentorship, but someone that can speak truth to power; challenge thought patterns; help assuage the traumas that led to these rough edges; and encourage empathy.

Does a VC model that demands a company be fattened up for an exit within seven years (when a company might otherwise take decades to be built more sustainably) allow for any of these support structures? Does it even want them? Isn’t seeing the Founders of their portfolio company cracking the whip to ‘maximise productivity’ in line with the average VC’s agenda? How do we change this dynamic and if we can’t, how do we at least mitigate it?

Sadly few Founders are equipped to make their brand claims consistent with the reality of their workplace culture on their own. It’s clear that the discipline of branding has evolved and startups are benefitting from that. But what of People Operations? Is that evolving quickly enough? Are startups paying as much attention to the competitive advantage that being ahead of the curve in this area would bring them as they are their branding pursuits?

None of this is to cast judgement on Away, nor founders, nor VCs. I want to challenge the status quo. In this article, I’ve raised some of the questions the reporting on Away should have raised. To be honest, I don’t fully know the answers and I, alone never could. What I do know is that we only find answers by having these discussions. I do care that Founders aren’t set up to fail and that workplace culture works for everyone and screws no one. Unless we have these discussions we won’t get closer to either of those things. I hope we can spark that discussion, that people share answers to questions we’ve raised here, ask the questions we didn’t and use this as an opportunity to learn and grow.

We can all start somewhere. We can recruit people that are a good culture add: those that embody our values. And what are those values? How can we make them consistent for the twitter mob, for the media, for staffers, candidates queuing up to be part of something fresh?

Be mindful and rigorous in exploring and defining what your workplace culture is and how you can uphold that. Make it watertight.

For those looking to embody the principled, inclusive and positive cultures that make a difference to businesses and the people within them, get in touch with us at Black Unicorn so that together we can pattern you up.

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Michael Berhane, Founder of POCIT
Jason Toure
Jason Touray

Founder & CEO @ Black Unicorn. Ambassador @ Huckletree. Mentor @ Backstage Capital.

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