On Equality and Empathy. How to create a no nonsense culture

Like many people, I have read Susan Fowler’s blog post. I wanted to share few thoughts around how to shape a empathetic workplace.

A company that I admire a great deal and was privileged to be part of (on two separate occasions) is PayPal. For a company with several thousand employees, we had a great culture that was transparent and trickled from the top really well. PayPal champions diversity and rights like it is nobody else’s business. You must have seen PayPal’s stance in the recent past around transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. Another less known PayPal’s success in its inclusion efforts is the ‘Returnship’ program, which is like internship for returning mothers, who have taken a break from work to take care of their pre-school children. Returnship is a brilliant initiative that provides confidence to women returning to workforce. Under all these efforts is something PayPal seriously believes in — inclusion and respect. I know these not only because I was part of PayPal’s leadership at one point and understand intimately how PayPal operates but also because my wife still works there and she loves what the company stands for.

Her peers and leadership treat her with dignity and respect and she in turn pours her heart in her work. This is the important nuance. People love you back when you are not an asshole to them. Despite two young boys, a husband in the middle of a startup, she gives two hundred percent, and she does it out of love. Your culture should make your employees fall in love with you. It should feel like family where everyone is working together towards a shared goal. A company environment should not threaten people, make them feel insecure and most importantly feel defeated. It is very simple.

Middle management is one of the most important hires a company could do for establishing a solid culture. Middle management should first understand the core values that company has been founded upon and operate with a mission to foster a culture that aligns with these core values. Lot of companies are not fully able to achieve a solid middle management platform because of a rockstar driven culture. In the past I have written about an important management rule that I embrace to heart — “There are no rockstars in a team, only rockstar teams.” A lot of people have a tendency to let high performing jerks get away, which creates an insecure culture. The thinking here simply is the fact that corporate bonuses are results driven and at the end of all, results move the bottom line. This kind of thinking is what lets jerks get away in the pretense of a rockstar. It is very important for the leadership teams to build a middle management layer made of empathetic individuals who focus on building happy rockstar teams and have no tolerance for jerk like behavior in the workplace.

I am at Meta now and our CEO makes it a point to interview every employee before a hire. He talks with them for just few minutes but he absolutely needs to feel in his gut that the values on which the company is founded can be carried forward by its employees. At Meta’s scale, it is possible for us to do this and at the scale of PayPal it is not. Hence for companies with more than a few hundred employees, hiring rock solid middle management that is respectful and empathetic and in general good people (in addition to being execution focussed or results driven) is important.

We are human and it is a shame that we need to remind ourselves that on several occasions. We should work our butts off and create a human environment similar to what we have in our homes. Every employee should be able to speak their minds with absolute conviction that they are heard and treated fairly. If we ever get an inkling that the environment is getting toxic, it has to be treated with as much urgency as you would treat when your product fails a customer. Probably even more.

Here are my five points to create a stellar culture where everyone feels included and welcome.

  1. Respond to feedback by sending a strong message — Lot of times we might frankly miss things. But when you hear a feedback that fundamentally does not agree with our values as a human being, we need to respond. As leaders, we need to send a strong message that reverberates in every employee. An example here is PayPal’s message on pulling operations out of North Carolina in response to transgender rights. This sends a message that it is not all about the bottom line.
  2. Develop training programs — Companies need to train their employees. Lot of times people cannot take decisions because they are not sure what to do in situations that are uncomfortable. The easiest thing is to sweep it under the rug. Simulations and industry case studies should be part of the training programs. It is not just about creating a harassment free work place, it is about creating a work place with human values.
  3. Take time to build an amazing middle management tier — This is one of the most important things. In big companies, culture is made by a confident and empathetic middle management. The first and second level managers are the closest to engineers and unfortunately gate keepers of culture. They are the ones sending messages to the employees everyday by doing performance reviews, 1:1s, team meetings, etc. You need managers who are honest, ethical and ones who are champions of the fundamental human values.
  4. Squash the rock star culture — There are no individual rockstars. There are only rockstar teams. This mantra will squash the jerks who operate under the pretense of rockstars. Have a no-asshole policy around this.
  5. Create a family like setting — Do team outings. Have people bring their spouses or family or friends. This allows employees to understand that their peers are real people like them with probably the same dreams, problems, challenges and family. Help team members learn about each other on a more personal level.

On a closing note, in the blog post Susan Fowler talks about Uber, but there are other articles that talk about other companies. This blog post is not meant to take jabs at any company but to share my perspective around how to build an amazing culture of inclusion, where everyone is happy and successful.