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Current and former Meta staffers describe confusion, disarray and declining confidence in Mark Zuckerberg as Sheryl Sandberg departs

June 2, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC

It’s a tough time to work at the company formerly known as Facebook. And the departure of Sheryl Sandberg, who announced her resignation from Meta Platforms on Wednesday after 14 years as chief operating officer, is likely to add to the disquiet many employees feel following a tumultuous year at the company.

Meta’s struggles to maintain revenue and user growth in the face of Apple’s privacy changes and stiff competition from TikTok, combined with the whiplash-inducing pivot to the metaverse, have left many Meta employees feeling uneasy and disoriented, according to interviews with more than a dozen former employees who have left in the months since the company rebranded itself as Meta last October. That unease has been compounded by an apparent shift in the balance of power. Even before Sandberg announced her decision to step down, a wave of senior departures and a reordering of the leadership ranks under founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had left employees wondering who’s in charge and where they stand. In the past year, Sandberg, Zuckerberg’s longtime second in command and formerly one of its most publicly prominent executives, had seemingly been relegated to fewer public-facing duties. (Sandberg has said she will remain on Meta’s board.) 

“A lot of people are confused about exactly what they are supposed to be working on and why,” says one former executive who recently left the company. (All the former executives requested anonymity to avoid violating nondisclosure agreements or alienating such a powerful company.) This executive says the problem is acute among the technology staff, many of whom are racing to get put on metaverse-related projects because they figure that is where the money and visibility with top executives will be. But the uncertainty is also an issue for the employees who work on advertising sales, by far the company’s biggest revenue driver. “They have to figure out, how do you sell ads for the metaverse?” says the executive. “The demand for metaverse ads won’t be there for five years yet, but they have to be ready for it.”

In an interview, Sandberg told Fortune‘s Alyson Shontell and Phil Wahba that she intends to spend more time on philanthropy, including advocating for women’s issues at a time when Roe v. Wade seems in imminent danger of being overturned. When asked about her decision to leave as Meta is reinventing itself and its advertising business is battling unprecedented problems, Sandberg said: “There’s never one perfect moment. You know, there’s no end or beginning of the ads business… There’s no distinct or definitive chapters on the metaverse.”

Many former employees, meanwhile, say they and their colleagues are concerned about whether the company, which has been a reliable engine of profits and growth in the past, can continue to match that performance. “Is the pivot going to be successful financially for the company? I think a lot of people were concerned about that,” one says. This executive says he once heard Zuckerberg himself muse in a large internal meeting about the longevity of large companies, and how few manage to remain top global revenue producers for more than a decade. (Facebook was launched in 2004, and went public in 2012.)

Mark Mahaney, an internet analyst at Evercore, said in a note to investors in February, after Meta’s stock cratered, that the market was questioning whether Meta was becoming “Yahoo 3.0.” And Business Insider reported in April that at least one company insider had heard colleagues also making the Yahoo comparison. (Once a dominant internet company, Yahoo lost its prominence in the era of social media and smartphones; it was acquired by Verizon and eventually sold off to a private equity firm.) While none of the executives Fortune spoke to recall hearing Yahoo invoked specifically, they say some employees are worried that Meta might be entering a terminal decline. The falling stock price—down more than 40% since the rebrand in mid-October 2021—has also been a topic of conversation, recently departed Meta employees say, because employees are given a lot of their compensation in equity, and have a lot of potential personal wealth at stake. “Everyone cares about the stock price,” one told us. 

Asked about employee perceptions of the company’s financial condition, a Meta spokesperson declined to comment, but pointed a reporter to remarks Zuckerberg made during Meta’s April 27 earnings call expressing confidence in the company’s long-term plans.

Controversies around misinformation and inflammatory content on Meta’s social platforms have also continued to dog the company, creating internal problems for Sandberg in particular. Until recently, Sandberg was the most prominent spokesperson for the company aside from Zuckerberg. But Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister who is now Meta’s president of global affairs, largely displaced Sandberg in this public-facing role, a move accelerated by reported tension between Sandberg and Zuckerberg over her public comments in the wake of the January 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Sandberg’s remarks at the time were widely interpreted as her trying to deflect Meta’s responsibility for providing a platform that many right-wing groups used to organize the incident. This was seen by some insiders as just the latest in a string of Sandberg gaffes. “They put her on ice for a while,” one former Meta executive says. (The Meta spokesperson declined to comment about cultural and personnel issues at the company.)

Meta employees appear ambivalent regarding Zuckerberg’s leadership of the company Sandberg is leaving behind. In a survey conducted in mid-May, before Sandberg’s announcement, by the employee messaging company Blind on behalf of Fortune, about 33% of surveyed employees said they are less confident about Zuckerberg’s leadership compared to last year, contrasting with 27% who said they were more confident. Forty percent of respondents said they felt “no change” on that front.

At the same time, current and former employees Fortune spoke with said that, despite misgivings, employees are largely willing to give Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt—on his leadership in general, and on the metaverse in particular. That’s because they have watched Zuck successfully pivot the company before: first with the move from Facebook being primarily a website that people accessed from their desktops to being primarily a mobile app; then with the acquisitions of both Instagram and WhatsApp; with the roll-out of Stories, image-heavy posts that only stay up for a day and were meant to compete with Snap; with Shops, which is Meta’s current e-commerce feature; and with various adjustments in how the News Feed algorithm works.

That’s a lot of pivots, and it helps explain why those employees are relatively sanguine. What’s more, the company is operating from a position of relative financial strength: For all its woes, Meta Platforms brought in nearly $40 billion in net income in 2021, and another $7.5 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2022.

As for Zuckerberg himself, he told podcaster Tim Ferris in late March that the fact people seemed confused and uncertain about his decision to pivot the company to the metaverse was simply more evidence that it was the right thing to do. “Obviously, being in a state where something that you’re trying to do is fundamentally misunderstood or that people don’t believe in it, can be tough,” Zuckerberg said. “But after going through a bunch of these cycles, I actually feel like I’ve trained myself to see it the opposite way, which is if I’m doing something that feels too well understood for too long, then I feel like I’m just being complacent. I want to push us into the zone, which is: OK, let’s constantly be doing something that can be doubted. Because if we’re not, then what are we doing?” Never mind that such solipsistic logic could justify almost any project—apparently a well-thought-out business plan is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Change at the top

Some former employees say that the departure of a host of senior-level Meta executives, and a reshuffling of the inner circle closest to Zuckerberg, are contributing to a growing sense of unease among colleagues. Business publication Insider counted 18 top executives who departed the company in 2021 alone. These include David Fischer, the company’s former chief revenue officer; Fidji Simo, who left Meta, where she had been overseeing the Facebook app, to become CEO of Instacart; and Carolyn Everson, a top global ad sales executive, who went to Instacart to join Simo. Asha Sharma, who had been in charge of Meta’s messaging apps, also headed for the exits, as did David Marcus, who had run Meta’s nascent efforts in building payments technology, including its abortive cryptocurrency project. 

The departures also included people on the technology side whose expertise could have been critical to building the metaverse. Among them was Mike “Schrep” Schroepfer, the company’s chief technology officer, who was a 13-year veteran of the company. Schrep had spent a lot of time trying to advance Meta’s artificial intelligence systems, including efforts to use A.I. to help moderate content on the company’s platform. His replacement as CTO, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, had been in charge of Meta’s Reality Labs division, which is focused on virtual and augmented reality and now has responsibility for delivering the hardware side of Meta’s metaverse. (Reality Labs remains under Bosworth’s leadership; Vishal Shah, an Instagram veteran, is now VP of metaverse and is responsible for metaverse software and business development.)

The transition between Schrep and Boz has been rocky, one former employee familiar with the CTO’s office says. “It has not gone well,” says the former employee. He says some of this is a matter of personal demeanor and management style. Schrep was known for being low-key and introspective, with some former employees saying he was personally troubled by the company’s issues around harmful content and cared deeply about trying to solve them. Boz, these employees say, is more extroverted, more hard-charging and brash. “In terms of management style, it’s just this 180-degree difference,” the former employee says. One can get a sense of this difference from Zuckerberg too. For instance, in his podcast interview with Ferris, Zuckerberg said, “One of my colleagues, Boz, has this saying that we’re in danger of nice-ing ourselves to death.” Whatever Boz is, in other words, nice isn’t it.

The increasing prominence of Clegg, the president of global affairs, has also worried some insiders, former employees say. Clegg, who joined Facebook in 2018, has become Meta’s main spokesman on issues ranging from misinformation and harmful content to data privacy and antitrust. A recent blog post laying out Meta’s vision for the metaverse—and, crucially, stating why Meta thinks it shouldn’t be solely responsible for policing conduct in the metaverse in the same way it has been forced to moderate content on its existing platforms—went out under Clegg’s name, not Zuckerberg’s.

Nick Clegg of Meta Platforms
Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta Platforms, is seen by many as having become Mark Zuckerberg’s de facto second-in-command.
Lino Mirgeler—picture alliance/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Sandberg’s public-facing duties had seemingly dwindled. In addition, a number of Sandberg loyalists have been “layered,” one former Meta executive says, meaning they have had additional levels of management inserted between them and Zuckerberg’s innermost circle. (In a Facebook and Instagram post announcing her departure, Sandberg was effusive in her gratitude toward Zuckerberg, and wrote, “We still sit together…meet one-on-one every week, and the feedback is immediate and real.”)

Some former Meta insiders say they worry that Clegg, a career politician, is not the right person to be serving as Zuckerberg’s de facto number two, especially given his limited experience with technology, the advertising business on which Meta depends, or running a for-profit company. Some also point out that Clegg does not have the best reputation in the U.K., where he is seen as having made a Faustian bargain when he took his Liberal Democrat party into government as the junior partner in a coalition government with the Conservative Party. Many Liberal Democrats felt Clegg betrayed the party’s ideals for his own power, and that the party was unable to effectively influence the national agenda, especially on crucial issues such as Brexit, which largely reflected Conservative priorities. Many blame Clegg for the historic election defeat the Liberal Democrats suffered in the ensuing general election.

Clegg has been advancing the argument that Meta should not be considered primarily responsible for regulating conduct in the metaverse it is building. This stance is controversial with lawmakers and online watchdogs. But one former Meta executive says he thinks the clarity of this position makes it more defensible than the position Meta has been in with its existing platforms. The company has tried, or in some cases been forced by law, to moderate content, and yet has continually fallen short of expectations. This executive faults Meta for in the past shifting between saying its platform was simply “a mirror of society,” to hiring armies of contractors to moderate content, to saying A.I. would solve Meta’s content moderation issues, to realizing A.I. wasn’t working. “There is some back-and-forth before they land where they landed,” he says of the policy of not taking full responsibility for users’ conduct. He says it would have been better to have just stuck to the line that Meta is not going to fix society’s problems by itself, which is the line he thinks Clegg is trying to draw around the metaverse. 

Whichever direction this goes, how these issues are addressed will have major internal repercussions at Meta. Many of the former executives Fortune spoke to cited burnout as a major issue at the company—burnout fueled, in part, by the continual public criticism that the company has absorbed over content and conduct on its platforms.

Faith in the business

Despite the numerous challenges Meta faces, as well as its damaged reputation thanks to years of data-privacy blunders and content mishaps, many employees are still optimistic that the company will overcome its obstacles. Two exclusive surveys conducted by Blind for Fortune reveal that a substantial number of Meta employees have faith in the company’s ability to compete with other tech giants, and believe that the yet-to-be developed metaverse will one day become a lucrative business.

In one survey of 1,035 verified U.S.-based Meta professionals, conducted in mid-May, employees revealed their thoughts about the competitive challenges the social media giant faces in light of Apple’s privacy changes and the rising threat of TikTok. Seventy percent of those surveyed believe that Meta can increase revenues despite Apple’s privacy changes and Google’s yet-to-be implemented similar updates. A whopping 81% believe that Meta can comply with the different privacy laws being developed worldwide, suggesting that workers believe increased regulations won’t hamper the company.

Several former Meta executives disagree with the survey respondents, and believe that the privacy regulations will have a major impact. “When Facebook was built, none of this shit existed,” one former technology executive told Fortune, regarding how the modern-day privacy landscape has made it difficult for the company to run its business without running afoul of regulations. “I’m less sure that just given the scrutiny they have, they will have that type of runway,” the technologist added, noting that governments and regulators may be more inclined to scrutinize Meta’s development of the metaverse because the company hasn’t earned any goodwill following previous blunders.

Regarding TikTok, Meta employees were generally divided about their employer’s ability to compete with the ByteDance-owned social media giant, with 52% saying they were confident that Meta could eventually beat TikTok in short-form video content. 

In our second Blind poll, this time a survey of 1,003 verified Meta employees in the U.S., workers revealed their thoughts about the company’s pivot to the metaverse. About 58% of those surveyed say they are confident that Meta will be successful in the metaverse, that they understand Meta’s strategy for the metaverse, and that they understand how Meta will drive revenue from the metaverse. These Meta workers seem to know something that concerned Wall Street investors would like to know. As a former Meta integrity team member told Fortune, “There’s some really cool stuff happening… There’s an excitement about being a part of something new, where everyone isn’t hating on it yet.” The employee’s comments underscore how the company’s metaverse plans have inspired workers who may have gotten tired of the deluge of negative news surrounding the company’s other platforms.

But while the Meta workers believe that the company could be successful in its epic VR and AR pivot, that doesn’t mean the task will be a walk in the virtual park. Only 38% of surveyed Meta employees say that they believe their job is easier now that Facebook has rebranded as Meta. 

Zuckerberg may think this kind of discomfort proves Meta is on the right track—that it is living in the future. For others, the company’s existing travails—from Apple’s privacy changes to the growing risk of antitrust and privacy regulation to its struggles to match TikTok—as well as the Hail Mary nature of its metaverse pivot, are signs of a company whose best days are receding into the past. Either way, Sandberg’s departure underscores the fact that Zuckerberg and the company will be relying on a decidedly different, and in some ways unproven, team of deputies and managers to execute the metaverse reinvention.

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