In a Healthy Company Culture, It’s Okay to Vent in Private
At the troubled luggage startup Away, private messaging and group chats were effectively banned
One detail still haunts me from that explosive report on workplace dysfunction at the luggage company Away that the Verge published last month: Private messaging, for all intents and purposes, was banned at the luggage startup.
“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),” wrote the Verge reporter Zoe Schiffer. “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.”
Steph Korey, Away’s CEO and co-founder, went so far as to fire six employees for comments they made in a private Slack channel called #Hot-Topics, Schiffer reported. The channel was used by LGBTQ people and people of color, employees told the Verge, and used to vent about insensitive interactions. (Korey initially issued an apology amid the social media firestorm following the Verge’s viral story, and stepped down from her role into an executive chairwoman role — but has since returned as co-CEO, calling the Verge’s reporting “inaccurate.”)
I’m a millennial whose workplaces have always depended on messaging and chat systems like Slack, and to me, the idea of punishing private, back channel conversations sounds terrifying. Assuming employees will use private spaces to scheme or inflict ill will on others seems paranoid, if not discriminatory: Private conversations and channels can help address women’s and minorities’ need for support, solidarity, and reprieve from bias and discomfort.
For someone who feels this reality so deeply, I have to admit that my shock at Away’s policy is ironic. I’ve known about the company’s stance of discouraging private conversations since 2017, when I described the startup in glowing terms in a Quartz article on how Slack can foster sexist behavior.
Public workplace Slack channels, after all, can provide yet another stage for men to interrupt, mansplain, and mock, dominating conversation and silencing women. But another problem is that old-school exclusionary, sexist behavior — like male colleagues bonding over golf and beers — plays out just as prominently in the digital office via private DMs and Slack channels that women are neither privy nor invited to.
This is where Away came up as a positive counterexample: “Slack’s dream of bias-free discourse in the workplace is, for some, a reality,” I wrote in Quartz — a line that now seems uninformed. To prevent private Slack chats becoming de facto boys’ clubs, I wrote, Away had included in its Slack communication guidelines the rule that few situations warrant private group conversations that exclude others: “If three or more people are having a business discussion, it should happen in a channel where others have the ability to join and where new team members in the future have the ability to see the history of how that decision was made.”
Korey’s goal in banning private messaging at Away was (at least partially) to inhibit exclusionary behavior, the Verge piece affirmed. Unfortunately, what sounded like a logical measure backfired spectacularly, creating a climate of anxiety and paranoia, and eliminating safe spaces for employees to discuss the company’s many organizational problems.
Look, companies are run by human beings, and human beings screw up. This is not an excuse for what happened at Away — clearly there were myriad problems. But grappling with the fine line between beneficial transparency and destructive surveillance is a challenge proliferating throughout American society, and progressive startups are just as vulnerable as any other institution.
An after-work beer or off-site lunch to gossip or strategize is a time-honored solution to many of the petty problems of office life, but messaging technology has made it much easier to recreate this dynamic virtually, and in a dispersed workforce. In my own experience, despite having worked in respectful and collaborative organizations, private back channel support has often saved me and my peers from letting workplace stress toss us over the edge: The “ugh,” slacked to my work friend after a meeting that headed south. The late-night “how did the conversation go?” or “here for you” text.
This is true for everyone, but especially important for marginalized people: When you’re subject to systemic bias and discrimination, speaking your mind or raising honest concerns in public spaces can be highly intimidating. Often, you’re punished by the oppressing majority for doing so. Private, self-selecting spaces offer empathy and confidence building.
That’s what an Away employee identified as “Avery” told the Verge about the #Hot-Topics Slack channel — that it served a vital function for LGBTQ employees and people of color: “It was a lot of like, ‘This person did this not-woke thing,’ or ‘Those people did something insensitive,’” she told the Verge. Those conversations, according to the report, led to six people being fired.
Rather than viewing private conversations as a threat, good leaders embrace their inevitability. They see private discourse as a force for employee bonding and support. Good leaders remember that they have been in their employees’ shoes. (Indeed, as Schiffer points out, in a 2019 podcast interview, Korey herself describes venting to her Away co-founder, Jen Rubio, when the two worked together at Warby Parker: “What was so nice about the relationship is we could lean on each other to complain every once in a while, like if a project wasn’t going well.”)
I’ll never forget a walk I took with a colleague-turned-friend at my last job. She teared up as she told me how she’d realized a man in a similar job was earning nearly twice her salary. She felt paralyzed, self-conscious, and wondered whether she should quit. Things were said on that walk that she would have never said to her team in the office. And amidst the venting, we strategized. Together we identified root causes, talked through her options, and came up with a plan. She arranged a meeting with her supervisor and calmly laid out her case. A month later, she received a fat raise.
Her bosses may never know how close they came to losing a valuable contributor — and our conversation would not have happened without the freedom to speak to one another as humans, in private. Without this kind of “back channel” chat, whether it’s IRL or via Slack, no business can function effectively, or reach its highest potential.