What everyone’s missing about Yelp vs. Talia Jane

In case you missed it, someone named Talia Jane got fired by Yelp shortly after she wrote an open letter to the CEO.

The CEO said he wasn’t involved, blaming the high cost of living in the Bay Area, and mentioned that Yelp had already announced that it was planning to move the customer service department (where Talia worked) to AZ.

In a follow up interview, Talia said:

I was told on the phone the letter violated Yelp’s code of conduct. I was told it could take a while [for the severance paperwork to come in]. Especially because I was told one thing and they released a statement showing something completely different, I have a feeling they’re going to take a very long time to figure out exactly how to word it.

Yup, they will.

Now that this firing has gone viral, the lawyers are going to be extremely cautious.

It’s obvious Talia is reactive and emotional. She describes being shaky and anxious. She doesn’t seem to see her own agency, and that pisses a lot of people off.

A lot of the comments she’s getting blame her for: taking a job that doesn’t pay much; moving to an area with a high cost of living; and renting a place she couldn’t afford.

In essence, these people say, she’s made bad choices and she has only herself to blame. Ignorance is not an excuse.

She’s also getting criticized for “biting the hand that feeds her” and for not “paying her dues” — essentially, telling her that she’s fighting the system, and she cannot win.

It’s true that it will probably make it harder for her to get hired in the future, unless she adopts a new identity.

And the 3rd big area of criticism is being lumped at Talia as a representative of her generation: she’s a typical whiny Millennial, wanting everything on a silver platter without having to work for it.

But the reality is that the system has changed, and people like Talia are taken advantage of during the recruiting process.

Apparently she does not have the judgment to budget according to her means, and she describes a similar problem among the rest of her team.

They are all surviving on very little and working very hard.

Talia thinks that she should commute 30 miles to have her own apartment. San Francisco’s housing market is very tough, so most people there share rooms.

Talia thinks that she should have a car and more privacy than her peers — and yet she has taken a job that does not pay her enough to afford her housing and car.

Whose fault is it that Talia does not understand household math?

Some would say that it is her fault, or perhaps blame her parents for not teaching her. Others might blame the schools for failing to teach her the most rudimentary of home economics.

A lot of people are rightly pointing out that companies need to pay their employees a living wage.

It was a stupid decision of Yelp to build a customer service team on minimum wage in a very expensive area.

Clearly they have hired people without great judgment.

Anyone with any sense in their head would have said “I can’t afford to take this job” or made major sacrifices in order to take it.

Talia did neither, so she’s getting a lot of heat.

But what’s the employer’s role?

Employers should take a big lesson from this event (if they don’t already realize): even the employee making minimum wage can put your company’s employment practices in the limelight.

There used to be a pretty clearly understood social contract in the USA.

Once upon a time, you could get a low-skill, entry-level job and it would pay you enough to sustain a house and a family in a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

Not anymore.

Lots of companies today expect their employees to work for peanuts in order to gain experience — after graduation, and for longer.

Increasingly, the trend is to make the social contract even less stable.

Uber (and many others) are helping drive a freelance “contractor” model where their employees only get paid in proportion to the revenue they generate.

The company provides the platform and the toolkit; employee success is up to the individual.

This resonates well with the American Dream — as a rugged individual, I can rise to the challenge of work and be grateful to my employer for providing me an opportunity!

And that’s true, but it’s only part of the truth.

The nastier side is that while the cost of household goods has dropped dramatically over the past 30 years, so has the real buying power of wages.

At the same time, the price of housing has skyrocketed.

So for the foreseeable future, my friends, we will have to expect to get by with less. We will have to share rooms, cars, and everything else.

Welcome to the “sharing economy” — you can’t afford to own it yourself, so you had better learn to share.

People like Talia have not realized that the social contract has already been rewritten. Most likely she will struggle for many years to understand why she’s not succeeding in our capitalist system.

She thought that she could take a minimum wage job, rent an expensive apartment, and drive a car — and that the job would be enough to pay for it.

We’re not very straightforward about that in the USA, are we?

If your parents or school didn’t teach you household economics, you’re kind of screwed. You had better start learning.

In the freelancer and sharing economy, everyone’s a commodity.

Talia didn’t know how to quantify her own value at the most basic of level — do I earn enough to afford the things I’m buying — and she got desperate.

In her words:

I know this sounds naive, but the original plan was I didn’t have a plan. I woke up hungry, and I thought I would send some tweets to the CEO and maybe he would see them. I was looking at them and thought these are stupid. This doesn’t show any sense of validity or urgency. This is just a person being annoying. I figured I would write this all out. … And then everything fucking exploded.

Anyone who has ever worked in a school will immediately see the key phrase: “I woke up hungry.”

When people are hungry, they don’t learn.

They are operating from a survival level.

They are desperate.

What makes me very worried about our social contract: it will create a lot more desperation. Fear-based behavior is rarely pretty.

Jobs like Talia’s will always move: to the places where companies think they can get the best bang for their buck.

Depending on policies, that could be Arizona, Mexico, India, Texas or Oregon. Each has pros and cons.

But at a social level, we should be doing a lot more debate about how our policies of education and employment will impact people like Talia, who for one reason or another will make bad decisions.

Employers like Yelp will want to protect themselves from people who make bad decisions by doing a better job with hiring.

Employees need to have the courage to say “no” to companies who don’t pay enough money — if you are valuable, you can dictate the terms in this market.

Unemployment is pretty low for highly skilled people.

It’s pretty high for people who don’t understand basic economics.

In the social contract of the future, are we going to punish people for not “getting it” or are we going to try and do a better job of helping everyone make better choices in an increasingly confusing economy?

That’s the conversation we need to be having about situations like the one with Yelp and Talia.

Right now the balance of the social and employment contract in America is not very understood.

A lot of people are left behind due to their own ignorance.

Rather than scoring and shaming people, we should be working on building better systems to make sure that everyone is educated on how the system works so that they can find ways to succeed within it.