Startups Are Too Often Pretty on the Outside, Shitty on the Inside

Screenshot: Away Instagram

A decade ago, startup culture seemed like the great savior of the American workplace. Far from the florescent-hued prisons of workplace dystopia-themed movies like Office Space or Fight Clubs, many tech startups emphasized the importance of fun with amenities like nap spaces and ping pong tables. These shiny new spaces reflected the premise of positivity on which many startup were purportedly founded—changing the world for the better and building something inspiring.

But many years older and wiser, it’s now clear that these perks and promises are as much about creating an environment in which employees never leave the office, as they are about building a stylish, progressive-seeming brand. A recent report by the Verge chronicled difficult working conditions at Away, an Instagram-famous, direct-to-consumer luggage company, popular among celebrities and millennials. Hailed as a company that could do for luggage what Warby Parker did for eyewear, most Away employees describe beginning their jobs with a sense of excitement about working for a woman-founded company that ostensibly prioritized inclusion and emphasized travel. But employees say they soon found themselves working pretty much around the clock and were publicly berated over Slack for not working fast enough.

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Slack is a pretty common in most offices, but at Away, employees say they were discouraged from creating private groups or messaging one another directly. In theory, this was to encourage transparency. Founders Jen Rubio (who is engaged to Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield) and Stephanie Korey said the open-Slack culture was in direct response to the old school boys’ clubs that often keep marginalized people from advancing:

“Over the course of our careers, Jen and I observed situations where women and underrepresented groups were often excluded from key emails or meetings,” Korey said in a statement to The Verge. “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.’”

But, in reality, what the policy actually did was keep marginalized people from privately discussing times coworkers did “not-woke” things. When Korey found out about a private Slack channel where LGBTQ+ and POC employees vented about their frustrations, she reportedly opted to fire six people rather than address their complaints.

Not only do employees say Away’s no-privacy culture made it impossible for employees to vent—or perhaps turn that venting into unionizing—it also allegedly used the public forum to shame employees into working long hours without compensation. The Verge reports that one manager, Xandie Pasanen, would often pass along passive-aggressive messages on behalf of Korey asking employees stay later, work harder, and sleep with their laptops in order to answer customer service emails until late at night:

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“She would say ‘I’ll be working late tonight — dinner is here if any of you can work beside me. I mean, leave if you have to, but I have to stay,’” Lauren’s teammate Caroline says. “Her messages were long and loving, but they were manipulative. If she didn’t hear from you she’d just contact you directly asking for verbal confirmation you could work.”

Customer service employees say they were guilted into working through the holidays, even taking six-hour shifts on New Year’s day. But it was never enough. Soon even the vacation time they were promised when hired was taken away under the guise of a lesson in career development, according to a series Slack messages from Korey that began around 3 a.m.:

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“To hold you accountable...no more [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you...I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values.”

The easy solution to Away’s problems would be hiring more employees, but instead, Away’s management seems to have put the responsibility for doing the work of many into the hands of a few. As has also been the case at other startups like Thinx, ThirdLove, and Modcloth, progressive branding and Instagrammable workspaces masked regressive practices. In the many many startups whose employees report abusive workplace practices, those superficially cushy amenities serve a dual purpose, both drawing employees in and making workers’ complaints appear trivial to outsiders looking in.

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