I’ve got a confession to make: Over the years, I’ve written some emails and other electronic messages that would not paint either my colleagues or my employer in a flattering light. At least a few of them would reflect poorly on me as well.
Read out of context, these messages (and their replies) would suggest organization dysfunction. Read in context, they’d reflect that disagreements and personality conflicts can arise even in the strongest of corporate cultures. The best of friends can fight.
I bring all of this up after reading coverage of the big gender discrimination case currently playing out in San Francisco, pitting interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao against her former employers at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Much of it describes Kleiner Perkins as a place where you wouldn’t want to work. Lots of arguments, rivalries and ambiguous performance evaluation (both formal and informal). Almost all of it has been sourced to contemporaneous electronic messages, many of which have been read aloud by their authors from the witness stand.
The more you hear, the less you can imagine that Kleiner Perkins has managed to stay in business for five minutes, let alone 43 years. And plenty of its rivals have been privately reveling in such sentiment.
To be clear, few of the embarrassing emails are explicitly germane to the gender discrimination or retaliation charges. They’re just the type of collateral evidence that emerges in the margins of most any trial. And my strong belief is that other organizations — venture capital firms, media companies, etc. — would be experiencing something similar, were their message archives to be put on public display.
It’s why I had presumed that Kleiner Perkins would find some way to settle with Pao before heading to court (it did try, but clearly failed). Was safeguarding its reputation really not worth $16 million (or perhaps much, much more) and a dose of wounded pride? Did it really not see that even if it wins, it really loses?
Or did the firm ultimately put some of its faith in this notion that everyone would recognize something of their own workplace in the various emails, and thus give Kleiner Perkins a pass? If so, it was a miscalculation. In just two short weeks, Kleiner Perkins has seen its brand decay from grand to gauche.
No matter the jury’s verdict, Kleiner Perkins will be forced to profess its competence in front of investors, entrepreneurs and journalists. Each of them (us) will treat the efforts with skepticism. After all, our own emails are secure. For now.
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