Yes, It's Possible To Change Your Company Culture—But Don't Expect It To Be Easy

Published in Online Spin, August 16th, 2019

Two weeks ago, an internal memo from a Google employee landed in the public domain. The memo, called, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why,” alleged that its author was discriminated against for becoming pregnant, and retaliated against for trying to work with the HR department to address discriminatory behavior.

I’ve read virtually the same articles about Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Uber. The details are different, while the gist is the same: The company has significant challenges with its culture. People feel like the system is against them. We’re miserable here.

Some of these organizations are simply experiencing what it’s like when you try to get tens of thousands of people to get along. Others are dealing with issues that are more systemic and egregious. Uber, for example, built its culture on a foundation of misogyny, arrogance, and a total disrespect for anyone who got in its way: lawmakers, taxi drivers, journalists...

But are toxic company cultures even a problem? Customers don’t seem to care. I’d guess 99% of people who use Uber have never heard of or thought about the Mafia-like tactics that have allowed the company to get where it is. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Facebook’s disregard for privacy, and yet two billion people continue to log onto the social network regularly.

If your only reason for wanting to create a better company culture is so customers won’t be unhappy with you, you probably shouldn’t bother. But if you want to create a positive company culture so that people will want to work at your organization, so that you don’t waste time, energy and money on mediation, arbitration and lawsuits, so that staff can be productive and focused on where you’re heading instead of dealing with the misery of their job, then it’s definitely worth it.

And it is possible to change a toxic company culture. But it isn’t easy.

Consider Riot Games, makers of “League of Legends.” A year ago, gaming website Kotaku wrote an expose about sexism at the company—as I said above, the kind of article that could have been written about any number of tech companies.

But Riot isn’t any number of tech companies. It actually took action. Last week, Kotaku reported on Riot’s progress so far, including “hiring a Chief Diversity Officer and situating them in the highest rungs [of] the company, de-emphasizing hiring hardcore gamers over other qualified candidates and investigating or removing problem employees.”

The update makes it clear that Riot is nowhere near perfect, and addresses some of the internal pushback that accompanied the reforms. But it seems clear that the culture is a lot better than it was. “Uniformly, Riot employees speaking with Kotaku for this article are enthusiastic about [Chief Diversity Officer Angela] Roseboro’s efforts.”

What does it take? An iron will and a total commitment. A willingness to have courageous conversations, no matter how difficult they are. A willingness to understand that other people’s perspectives are valid even if you have not or will never personally experience them. A willingness to be crystal-clear and totally committed to articulating and enforcing boundaries of behavior: what is OK and what is not OK. And a willingness to apply the same high standards to everyone in the company, no matter how high up they are or how well they code.

Not easy. But, to paraphrase professor Brené Brown, integrity is choosing what is right over what is easy. Wouldn’t you rather do what is right?

Kaila Colbin