The spectacular fallout from a recent investigation into Away, which portrayed the beloved luggage company as a toxic workplace, has revealed two schools of thought on how to treat startup employees.
The first says that staff should be cherished, because harnessing the passion and brilliance of “A players” is key to success. Think catered lunches, beautiful offices, and “Best Places to Work” lists. The second says that making a dent in the universe is hard, and employees should expect to work tirelessly under the directives of visionary and sometimes mercurial founders. Think “hustle culture,” Class B voting shares, and Steve Jobs’ infamous tirades.
These ideas are not mutually exclusive, and the truth is most companies operate on a bit of both. Away was no exception.
Over the past four years, the NYC-based luggage brand achieved cult status in the travel category. Founders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio raised $181 million in venture capital over five financings, blanketing the city’s subways with ads for their colorful rolling hard-shell suitcases with built-in chargers, and largely positive press coverage from NYTimes, Travel + Leisure, and other outlets.
But last Thursday, The Verge published an article about Away, now valued at $1.4 billion, that started a rousing online conversation between tech investors, founders, and operators about how far Korey went to make Away a success. In the piece, 14 former employees described a culture of surveillance, verbal abuse, and an exhausting workload that spanned late nights and weekends with restricted PTO. Four days later, the company announced that Korey would be replaced as CEO by Stuart Haselden, currently COO of Lululemon. (Korey will become executive chairman.)
Having been both a founder and an employee of multiple tech startups, I understand this is a complicated issue. Founders are under enormous pressure to deliver results to their investors and that pressure can manifest in all sorts of ways to employees. The story of Away has become something of a Rorschach test for Tech Twitter as these two schools of thought come into sharp contrast.
Some felt the criticism of the company was unfair. LA investor Peter Pham called the article a “hit piece” and said “people are getting soft,” while Lambda School founder Austen Allred argued that “something like 99%” of all high-growth startups could have a similarly negative piece should a reporter go looking for it.
Some pointed out that many of the complaints in The Verge’s story came from Away’s customer experience (CX) team, a particularly critical department for e-commerce companies. Management expert Melissa Nightingale believes CX is “the lifeblood of our orgs” but is often ignored and told to stop complaining. “We burn them [CX] out and we totally know it,” the former Mozilla executive said in a series of tweets.
While many held Korey responsible for the problematic culture, others also noted that the bigger issue may be investors.
Erica Baker, a group engineering manager at Microsoft, expressed frustration at VCs who seem willing to “overlook/champion psychological abuse” in the name of making the business successful.
Given how quickly Away named a replacement for Korey, it seems the company’s investors, which include Forerunner Ventures, Global Founders Capital, Comcast Ventures, and Wellington Management Company LLP, may have been aware of her alleged behavior and were working behind the scenes to change up leadership.
Here’s what I think: The definition of an acceptable work environment is changing. What might have been considered normal 30 years ago, such as casual sexism, racism, ableism, have become far more scrutinized—and that’s a good thing. Tech employees should expect to work somewhere free of verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, or extended unpaid overtime.
And yet we know that big funding rounds, intense founders, and scaling problems are breeding grounds for toxic workplaces, and none of those things are going away any time soon. So what do we do as an industry?
First, recognize the dangers of over emphasizing short-term results. Brian Wang, an executive coach who has been a founder (Fitocracy) and operator (Credit Karma, Eaze) has seen this first hand. “Long hours or surveillance culture can, in a vacuum, lead to more productivity by some measure,” Wang told me over the phone. “But it fails to take into account trade-offs like employee longevity, organizational trust, and willingness to share information.” Startups are a marathon, not a 100-meter dash, and operating at a sustainable pace is critical. As I’ve argued before, working long hours is unhealthy and a poor way to drive long-term results.
Second, understand that bullying is harmful and contagious. Research at the University of New Hampshire has shown that ridicule, public criticism, and silent treatment has negative effects not only on those targeted but on those who witness it. I once saw the cofounder of a company teardown our social media manager in a marketing team meeting for a minor issue. Productivity was shot for the rest of the day. In the case of Away, their Slack policy of public rooms meant that anyone’s angry missives would be highly visible. Not only that, but witnesses of bullying are more likely to bully themselves, so the abuse spreads, increasing everyone’s stress levels and preventing people from working at their best.
Third, help founders and employees alike find safe places to share fears and ask for help. Rubio and Korey saw the value of confiding in one another at a previous firm but punished employees who tried to create such a space for themselves. “I think even just acknowledging the fear that is there can loosen the grip that so often drives that anxious behavior,” Wang says. And while lower-level employees do have to be more careful about who they confide in, finding allies and cultivating relationships when you know you can’t immediately jump ship is really critical as well. In a silver lining, some of the best work relationships are formed in the crucible of misery, whether that’s a bad boss or a project gone sideways.
Ultimately, Away might have been a victim of its own success. The Verge article closes with a quote from Away’s former marketing manager: “Never work for your dream brand. It’ll kill you.”
The company was so beloved and expectations so high that employees were inevitably let down when they experienced a work culture that felt more like law, finance, or advertising, industries known to be grueling. As anyone who’s ever had a bad vacation knows, paradise is almost never what it’s cracked up to be.