- Gotta get Away. Yesterday, the Verge published an investigation by writer Zoe Schiffer into allegations of a toxic workplace culture at Away, the luggage company co-founded by CEO Steph Korey and president and chief brand officer Jen Rubio.
There’s a lot in the piece, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. But what jumped out at me is the role digital communication—and ideas about gender dynamics in communication—play in the company's culture.
Part of the Verge story focuses on how Away uses Slack, the chat app run by CEO Stewart Butterfield, who, it should be noted, is engaged to Rubio. The Verge reports:
"Employees were not allowed to email, and direct messages were supposed to be used rarely (never about work, and only for small requests, like asking if someone wanted to eat lunch). Private channels were also to be created sparingly and mainly for work-specific reasons, so making channels to, say, commiserate about a tough workday was not encouraged."
Why Slack rather than email? In a statement, Korey tells the Verge, “Over the course of our careers, Jen and I observed situations where women and underrepresented groups were often excluded from key emails or meetings. Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesn’t. With email the original author gets to pick who is included in the conversation and whose voices won’t be heard. That’s not the company we want.”
In an interview with Fortune earlier this year (the co-founders are on our 2019 40 Under 40 list), Korey talked about her Slack habits, saying, "I preface every single message I send with a level of urgency and an expected response time, and it’s (unsurprisingly) put my team at ease because there are no unspoken expectations."
However, the Verge reporting makes clear that, in some cases, her messages—several of which are published in the article—did anything but put employees at ease. Writes Schiffer: "The rules had been implemented in the name of transparency, but employees say they created a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance." Employees say Korey and others at the company used Slack to pressure them to work inhumane hours and to publicly shame and berate them.
It's true that emails and meetings can be exclusionary, and that women and people of color may be the ones left out. But rather than foster an open and reciprocal dialogue, Away's reliance on open Slack messages appears to have created a one-way megaphone for the company's executives. That may be their right as demanding bosses, but it's hard to label such a system as "inclusive"—and downright painful to see it defended in the name of feminism.
Today's Broadsheet was produced by Emma Hinchliffe.
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