After bullying and a weak apology, Away CEO goes away

The Verge exposed the toxic culture at direct-to-consumer luggage startup Away. The CEO Steph Korey sort of apologized, then got replaced. The whole sordid saga illustrates how not to run a company.

The Verge feature article by Zoe Schiffer was well reported and devastating. Away has dispensed with internal email — everything runs on Slack. This promotes transparency, since everybody can see what everybody else is doing. It’s an interesting concept, but when the management is behaving in emotionally abusive ways (like pressuring people to work every day, give up all vacation time, and respond quickly even on nights and weekends), it means that everybody can see that, too.

Here are a few relevant excerpts:

Korey often framed her critiques in terms of Away’s core company values: thoughtful, customer-obsessed, iterative, empowered, accessible, in it together. Empowered employees didn’t schedule time off when things were busy, regardless of how much they’d been working. Customer-obsessed employees did whatever it took to make consumers happy, even if it came at the cost of their own well-being. The framework echoed the tough company culture at Amazon where employees are taught to forget old habits and embrace a new set of ideals. . . .

Transparency seemed like it was just a pretense for Korey to micromanage and exert control. Marginalized employees felt silenced by the cutthroat environment and executives like Korey who used mistakes as an excuse to nitpick. “Steph has the drive and the personality of someone who could be very successful,” Erica says. “She embodies what we all aspire to be. But she does it in a way that’s absolutely not what I want to be.” . . .

[Regarding an employee that was reprimanded on Slack for not working hard enough:] “It was like having your pants pulled down in front of the company and then they just walk away,” she says. . . .

In a series of Slack messages that began at 3AM, she said, “I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability. 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.”

Korey’s response

Given the supposed embrace of transparency, you have to wonder whether Away management was okay with this exposé. Obviously, this is a PR disaster. Korey responded with a this message on Twitter, clearly also shared internally.

Starting and growing a company is incredibly hard, and I’ve made mistakes as we’ve built Away.

At times, I expressed myself in ways that hurt the team. I can imagine how people felt reading those messages; I was appalled and embarrassed reading them myself. I’m not proud of my behavior in those moments, and I’m sincerely sorry for what I said and how I said it. It was wrong, plain and simple.

Since last year’s incidents, I’ve worked hard to improve as a leader, working closely with an executive coach and building a leadership team I can lean on and learn from. It’s my responsibility to examine my own actions and set not just the standards for our work, but the standards for our behavior toward each other and the tone for the culture we want — one that is in line with the brand we convey. I know I have more work to do, and I will do better for the team.

On a company level, over the last 12 months we’ve invested in creating a culture that allows our people to thrive, including executive coaching for the senior staff, diversity and inclusion training for everyone, 360 reviews and establishing employee resource groups. We’ve evolved our policies to better support our team in work-life integration, including 33 days of PTO (including volunteer time-off and personal well-being days), more flexible remote work policies, improvements in our parental leave program, and providing mental wellness support. We’ve also added more than 100 new team members to better divide workloads and are working to improve clarity on our internal communications systems to allow employees to use what works best for them.

We encourage employees to share any concerns they have with our senior leadership and HR teams, and when matters arise, we will continue taking them seriously. When an employee reports misconduct, particularly on the grounds of harassment or discrimination, we conduct a thorough investigation using outside counsel and address it accordingly, as we always have.

What you read in the article doesn’t reflect the company we want to be; and we will continue to work to improve. I want to be clear that the Away I am committed to is one where we set the highest standards for how we treat our people and help them grow. I want all of our employees to hold me, and the entire leadership, accountable to that.

This sounds encouraging. It also sounds like what a CEO who was caught repeatedly being a bully on Slack would say. To my mind, “I expressed myself in ways that hurt the team,” seems a little weak given the abusive culture that the article revealed. As one former employee said, “It’s not like this was the first time she’s needed reprimanding for her management and conduct . . . She knows exactly who she’s hurt, and to just issue a ho-hum blanket apology now to the public, feels like it was done just to save face and slow down order returns that are coming in.”

In any case, a few days after she wrote this, Steph Korey was out, replaced by a new CEO.

Some have suggested that Korey was ejected more quickly than a male CEO would be in this situation. I wonder about this. There have been plenty of toxic male startup leaders who lost their jobs over it (like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, for example). If you worry about sexism and bullying, the right question to ask is not whether Korey deserved a break after this terrible behavior, but why the toxic male CEOs get to hang on so long.

The problem is the abuse, not the communications channel

Email can be used in secretive and abusive ways. The problem is not email, it is the secrecy and abuse. As this episode clarifies, if you get rid of the email and your policies and management are toxic, a shared channel like Slack can actually amplify the toxicity.

There’s a simple moral here. Don’t behave like a shit. Working really hard is fine, but people are human beings and they need a break once in a while — and to be respected for their work and forgiven for their mistakes.

You can be a shit in person. You can be a shit in a videoconference. You can be a shit in email. You can be a shit in Slack. The problem isn’t the channel. It’s that you’re behaving in an inhuman way. No matter how much pressure there is at work, that’s no way to do things.

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  1. I wouldn’t call her apology a weak one. I was surprised, especially after reading your characterization, by how blunt it was in accepting blame. Sure there was some deflection and many more “we”s than “I”s, but there was very little passive voice and no “non-apology” apologies. It was wordier than it could have been, but it accepted more than deflected blame IMHO.

    Ultimately it wasn’t too little, but it WAS too late.