This newsletter was conceived as a way to explore the daily collisions between big tech platforms and our democracy. But over time it has also become a newsletter about governance — the way that states govern companies, and the way that companies govern their employees. Increasingly, both states and corporations are governing through surveillance: deploying tools that allow them to monitor and control the actions of citizens and employees in real time.
The founders present their unusual communications policies as a tool meant to promote “transparency” and “inclusion,” but as Zoe documents — in a series of revealing, leaked Slack logs — in practice they allowed the company’s CEO to stalk and bully junior and minority employees.
Away embraced Slack in more ways than one — its co-founder, Jen Rubio, is engaged to its CEO Stewart Butterfield — but it took things further than most startups. Employees were not allowed to email each other, 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.
The rules had been implemented in the name of transparency, but employees say they created a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance. Once, when a suitcase was sent out with a customer’s incomplete initials stenciled onto the luggage tag, CEO Steph Korey said the person in charge must have been “brain dead” and threatened to take over the project. “Slack bullying is a thing,” explains a former member of the creative team we’ll call Erica*. “In my experience there, it’s extensive and relentless. It wasn’t just co-workers pinning things on other people — it came from the execs.”
The story goes on to document how one group of employees was fired for starting a Slack room for discussing LGBT issues without the permission of the CEO; how a group of a customer service workers were denied their previously approved holiday vacations and told by the CEO that it represented an exciting career development opportunity; and how an experienced manager was fired after defending his employees.
“In customer service jobs, it’s crucial have a good internal culture where employees feel the boss has their backs,” said BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos
, who formerly worked in e-commerce. “Because the rest of the job is getting screamed at by strangers. Away really blew it.”