Leadership & Brand Transparency

Recently, I’ve come across two profoundly interesting workplace culture and questionable leadership examples of how social media is forcing organizational transparency and working to shift the balance of power a tiny bit more in a candidate’s/employee’s favor. There is a lot of fear around speaking the truth and spotlighting the bad behavior or clearly poor executive decisions that most of us have encountered and witnessed in a lot of workplaces – regardless of industry. But there are some brave “voices” that are no longer willing to tolerate the despotic and gnarly culture too many organizations and “executives” dole out and that the masses passively accept.

A Bold & Fearless LinkedIn Post

Two weeks ago I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed and came across a very interesting update from someone who spoke about her “worst candidate interviewing experience“. Katherine D., a Recruiting and Branding Consultant summarized her experience interviewing with WeWork with a couple big red flags:

  • WeWork employees trash-talked other companies during the interview process;
  • They couldn’t get their technology to work and left her in the interview room for an extended period.

According to Ms. D’s update, the mission statement of the company intrigued her and what they were doing appealed to her so – she overlooked the issues and accepted an extended job offer. She received their employment contract and reviewed it and had others review it on her behalf and there was a condition included that states that “any ideas before WeWork, during employment, and after“, belonged to WeWork. Seriously? She questioned the recruiter about this portion of the contract and he responded that they encourage side projects. She explained to him that she’d been working on some projects in the “UR space” that were not competition for WeWork. The recruiter responded those were fine along with a smiley face. A day later, WeWork rescinded the offer via email because of her “concerns with the Restrictive Covenant agreement“.

As of this morning Katherine’s post has 11,300+ likes and over 1300 comments. Most of those comments are – strangely – negative, remarking that she is unprofessional to post a screenshot of the email from Brian Snodgrass, WeWork Senior Manager, Technical Recruiting telling her that the offer was being rescinded. Plenty are chastising her for “naming and shaming” and airing her “dirty laundry” on LinkedIn.

It’s beyond bizarre to me that so many people (1) comment negatively on someone’s perspective or story and (2) are choosing to defend a huge organization who [let’s face it] treated someone poorly [and whose contracts are objectively unreasonable] over being empathetic to a fellow human being who is simply sharing their point of view, emotion, and evidence. As of today, from what I could see, WeWork – who undeniably has a larger and more powerful social media presence than Katherine’s – has yet to issue an apology or publish a counter-argument to Katherine’s update. In my opinion, WeWork has confirmed as “loudly” as they possibly could their culture and their position on people priorities.

I – personally – applaud Katherine’s post and bravery. I admire people who possess the intestinal fortitude to share, in an authentic and raw way, the truths of their experiences. The culture of silence that most of the commenters are advocating is a massive problem. Not to mention, a critically moldy and anemic mindset. Executives, human resource “professionals”, and recruiters are still able to treat candidates poorly [and are comfortable doing so] because of the inherent power they hold over people and exercise – every opportunity they get. Ten years ago, it was absolutely possible for corporations to manufacture a brand image, but [thankfully] today…everyone has a voice and platforms in which to use their voice. I certainly have shared stories [here and here] about my experiences as a candidate, both good and bad.

There IS Such A Thing As Bad Publicity

On March 25, 2019, The Intercept, published an article “Inside the Hectic Last Days of Gymboree’s Retail Bankruptcy” written by the brilliant David Dayen. This narrative is fascinating and indicative of what type of culture – unfortunately – exists in a lot of corporations. It is definitely worth reading the entire article. Dishonesty and the lack of a moral center are rampant and an accepted norm by most. But a couple brave people have spoken up for what is right. Here are some of the key points that stood out to me:

  • Mera Chung – VP of Design for Crazy 8 – was told in mid-January 2019 by the then-CEO and the HR Chief that her severance package was terminated [she was told in December of the imminent bankruptcy]. Her employment agreement allowed a severance package equal to that of a year’s salary in the event the company went belly-up.
  • The trend of rapid-fire bankruptcies and store closures emptying malls across the country is largely due to private-equity firms destroying otherwise profitable companies. [They essentially pocket the company profits through ‘management fees’].
  • Gymboree’s board triggered “Article VII” of the severance plan, essentially, a self-destruct button that enabled the company to terminate the plan “at any time in any respect” via a majority vote from the board of directors [most companies have legal language that gives them the option to terminate this benefit]. The final CEO for Gymboree Shaz Kahng, who was also a member of the board, told Julie Thompson, a vice president of product integrity and compliance for Gymboree, that “it wasn’t our decision. Goldman Sachs is running the show now, we couldn’t do anything about it.
  • However, the severance package termination didn’t apply to everyone – a few executives would exit Gymboree with golden parachutes of disguised severance. Those select executives received paper checks with a “retention bonus” equal in value to their severance payouts. The recipients of the retention bonus were told by the board, which includes representatives from hedge funds and private equity firms, to deposit the checks immediately.
  • Gymboree echoes other recent retail bankruptcies in which executives got a large payouts/bonuses while everyone else gets a whole lot of nothing. [Toys “R” Us and Sears were approved for millions in executive bonuses].
  • Shaz Kahng pronounced – upon joining the organization that Gymboree needed to be a “disruptor” like Apple – but failed to deliver on that vision.
  • The Intercept reached out to Gymboree general counsel, Kimberly MacMillan; Chris Lu, general manager of Crazy 8; human resources chief Bridget Schickedanz – none would stand behind their actions and comment for the article, citing policy or other excuses.
  • In February, the U.S. bankruptcy trustee for the eastern district of Virginia, where Gymboree’s bankruptcy was filed, objected to a motion to approve an additional $2.2 million in incentive and retention bonuses to 52 key employees. The U.S. trustee, a neutral governmental party that operates in the interest of the process cited “These employees comprise less than 0.5 % of Debtors’ total workforce of over 10,000 employees, many of whom – the true rank-and-file and hourly employees – are literally working themselves out of jobs in connection with the Debtors’ going out of business sales“. Despite this objection, the payout was approved by the court.
  • The final paragraph of this exceptionally well-reported article ends with a quote from Ms. Chung, “You are going to have to answer to scrutiny for being a scumbag. I’m not going to walk away until your face is on a [f-ing] billboard.

Reputation Is Earned

It takes tremendous courage to challenge the status quo. More people need to speak up and take back some power in the workplace as both candidates and employees. I have to believe that more people than not want to learn and know the TRUTH of a company and its executives before they make a decision to join it.

I frequently, when contacted by an organization for an opportunity, reach out to my network on LinkedIn for their point of view; I read Glassdoor reviews; I Google the vision and values of the company to see if the reviews and/or my experience matches up or if they are in direct opposition to them. I mentally catalog red-flags during the interview relationship with the executives I speak with and weigh those against the “pros” when assessing if I want to move forward in the process. I want to know that the executives and leadership team I work with values integrity, relationships, and that they have a moral compass that is in alignment with my own.

Smart, savvy, growth-minded, creative and competent people who are looking for more than a paycheck do these things when they are in the beginning stages of a working relationship and throughout their career journey. It is only fair to have all the information available in order for a person to make a wise and well-educated decision to determine the fit and viability of a successful, well-balanced, and potentially enduring relationship.

As someone who follows some executive careers closely, it is not without notice that there are lots of “executives” that bounce from company to company leaving destruction in their wake. However, since most companies employ a pathologically immature and impotent talent strategy – they just want to bring someone in based on their perceived professional pedigree…someone who has had the “title”, the “experience”, and a previous list of “desirable employers” but lacks the ability or ambition to deliver on their reputation or promises. Their legacies at those previous employers be damned. Until they destroy this current brand…then they [the executive(s) and the board] initially assign the blame to shifting consumer habits and/or Amazon. Follow the leader. Consumer spending habits are not the problem. Amazon is not the problem for most corporations. The recycling of ineffective and dangerously self-centered leadership IS the problem and then – exacerbating the already enormous problem – they bring their posse of “yes men” with them.

It’s time to infuse common sense, kindness, humanity, and a fresh, modern approach to executive leadership, true customer engagement, and employee appreciation/engagement/retention strategies into companies that wish to stay relevant and sustainable.

About

Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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