The Hollywood Reporter reported that streaming service Netflix “dismissed three senior film marketing executives— about half its staff at that level—after they were discovered grousing on Slack about management.”
The publication reported that the terminated employees’ manager, Jonathan Helfgot, vice president of original films marketing, who was one of the people criticized, was “extremely reluctant to fire the three for their comments.” It was said that Helfgot fought on behalf of his employees, but ultimately let them go due to internal pressure.
Netflix has a unique corporate culture. You could say it’s not a touchy-feely place to work. Its ethos is radical transparency. It is acceptable practice to be brutally honest when offering feedback to co-workers. The key is that “you only say things about fellow employees that you say to their face.” It seemed that the marketing executives were criticizing Bozoma Saint John, the company’s chief marketing officer. There were no signs of racist or sexist comments about Saint John, who is Black.
Netflix’s corporate site offers a clear glimpse into the way the company runs its business. The streaming service is upfront about how it’s different, stating, “In most situations, both social and work, those who consistently say what they really think about people are quickly isolated and banished. We work hard to get people to give each other professional, constructive feedback—up, down and across the organization—on a continual basis. Leaders demonstrate that we are all fallible and open to feedback. People frequently ask others, ‘What could I be doing better?’ and themselves, ‘What feedback have I not yet shared?’”
The corporate blog offers, “We believe we will learn faster and be better if we can make giving and receiving feedback less stressful and a more normal part of work life. Feedback is a continuous part of how we communicate and work with one another versus an occasional formal exercise. We build trust by being selfless in giving feedback to our colleagues, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. Feedback helps us to avoid sustained misunderstandings and the need for rules. Feedback is more easily exchanged if there is a strong underlying relationship and trust between people, which is part of why we invest time in developing those professional relationships. We celebrate the people who are very candid, especially to those in more powerful positions. We know this level of candor and feedback can be difficult for new hires and people in different parts of the world where direct feedback is uncommon. We actively help people learn how to do this at Netflix through coaching and modeling the behaviors we want to see in every employee.”
Over the weekend, social media brought up the appearance of hypocrisy. Many pointed out that although Netflix calls for radical candor, when it was offered, people were fired. The terminations appear in direct contradiction of the code in which the company operates. In an effort to bring some clarity, Ted Sarandos co-CEO and chief content officer at Netflix, posted his view of what happened on LinkedIn.
“Very early on at Netflix, Reed Hastings wrote a culture memo for the company with Patty McCord, then our head of talent. At its heart was the notion of integrity and feedback, which they described as ‘You only say things about fellow employees you say to their face.’”
Referring to the termination, Sarandos wrote, “What happened here was unfortunately not simply venting on Slack or a single conversation. These were critical, personal comments made over several months about their peers (not their management, as suggested by the Hollywood Reporter)—including during meetings when those peers were talking or presenting.”
He added that the company acted appropriately and the Slack comments were “entirely inconsistent with those values, which is why their manager fired them.” Sarandos said in the LinkedIn post ,“It’s also worth noting that we don’t proactively monitor Slack or email. The Slack channel was open, so anyone could access the conversations even though the employees concerned thought it was private.”
The co-CEO concluded, “These decisions are always tough and always sad. But having a healthy culture requires hard decisions, which is why managers don’t shy away from them at Netflix.”
The feedback from LinkedIn members ran the gamut.
Here are some examples:
C.W.: “Hey Ted….you talk of ‘integrity?’ How ironic is that? Since your management just showed how much ‘integrity’ it has. You just assured that any problems will be swept under the rug from now on. You just put the fear of God into your employees about speaking up about future problems. This problem will continue to fester at Netflix and could cause its demise. Time to sell the stock.”
T.O.: “I agree with Ted. A toxic culture can weigh everyone down and distract employees. Honesty and negativity are two very different things.”
S.B.: “As an HR Leader, I applaud you for this stance.”
M.B.: “How useful was that? In the end, [it’s a] really bad idea to take such a serious action over social media. Most people will just vent over a stressful day or issue. Now, it’s like eavesdropping on a conversation you were never supposed to see in the first place and then making a major decision over it seems ridiculous to me.”
J.D.: “I am in agreement that this type of communication poisons relationships in the workplace—especially when the person being ‘grumbled’ about sees the thread. To me, the executives showed poor judgment by using a company communication channel to air grievances. Take it up directly with the person instead. If you all share a common issue, ask for time to meet with your boss as a group, or set up individual meetings to discuss. If nothing changes, then go as a group to senior management. We live in an age where work email, IMs and Slack channel communications are monitored by companies to nip toxic culture in the bud. My guess is that there may be a history of toxicity with the executives who were let go. If this is the first time these employees created an issue and the company reacted this way, either there were some deeply offensive things said, or the company over-reached and may risk eroding trust with the rest of the team. My guess is they broke a ‘no tolerance’ compliance rule with what was being said and done.”
L.D.: “I agree that there shouldn’t be an expectation of total privacy on a work-supported program, but three people griping on Slack is not the same as an email blast to the company. By firing them, they’ve sent a message to employees that dissent will not be tolerated. And also, we’re snooping on our employees. Creepy.”
T.D.: “Yikes, not a good move, Netflix. According to the article, none of the comments were disparaging or abusive, there was no need for termination [in my opinion] IMO, maybe just a meeting to address the comments.
Plus, venting can be a good thing (in doses, of course). If you and your co-workers all see you’re complaining about the same action from your boss, that can lead to someone finally addressing it, and change being made. Firing employees for such a move is very weird and authoritative.
In the meantime, a reminder to keep it to text messages!”
L.N.: “Doesn’t that move to fire these individuals paint a more toxic picture of the company?”