Digital Disruption Ethics: Why Are So Many Tech Workplaces Toxic?

I’m worried. I’m bothered. I’m worried and bothered. Let me explain…

I’ve long pondered the famous milgram experiment where unknowing volunteers obediently turn up the level of electric shock administered to another “volunteer” (actually an actor) until the other person appears to be grievously hurt, or even dead.

The point of the experiment is that most people, when urged by an authority figure, will obediently do horrible things. Here’s the lead researcher’s shocking summary of the findings:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Get that?! In the right circumstances, relatively few people have the moral fortitude — or whatever you want to call it — to resist carrying out actions that are incompatible with fundamental standards of morality. Have you ever thought to apply that to yourself? Perhaps you can recall something along the lines of participating in some schoolyard bullying because “everyone else was doing it.”

So why is this experiment, and the uncomfortable conclusions it raises, on my mind right now?

Toxic Cultures

As Squareweave’s digital strategy lead, I spend most of my day working in this space called Digital Disruption. That’s two words that are pregnant with a whole lot of meaning. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this blog post, that the Internet and related technologies are giving the boldest entrepreneurs among us the opportunity to ‘mess’ with very new and exciting ways of doing things. Ways that challenge, undermine, subvert, and often completely replace the ways things have historically been done:

  • Spotify and music streaming platforms are undermining traditional music distribution models.
  • AirBNB and similar services are cutting into hotel industry profits.
  • Uber and other ride-sharing services are taking a lot of business from the taxi industry, and challenging regulation.
  • Wikipedia, alongside the ubiquity of the Internet, has seen an end to the printed encyclopaedia.

Who among us isn’t excited about these disruptions? Does anyone honestly doubt that the new entrants do not, in fact, represent a far better solution to a given problem than the incumbents (alone)? I’m going to leave those as rhetorical questions because I think it’s pretty obvious that, from a user perspective, most of us are pretty happy with where the technology is going.

I’m just worried and bothered by how it’s getting there. I’m especially worried and bothered about the human casualty count on the road to technological progress. Especially in the tech sector. While Squareweave is thankfully a great place to work, where a lot of attention is paid to creating a positive and rewarding culture, that’s not the case across the board. In fact it hasn’t been for decades.

Here’s some commentary from The Economist’s book review of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s story of his company’s rise:

Mr Benioff’s vision was shaped at Oracle, where he worked closely with its boss, Larry Ellison. That involved inevitable exposure to what Mr Benioff describes as ‘Larry’s well-known management by ridicule style’ and a corporate culture summed up by insiders with the phrase ‘we eat our young.’ Mr Benioff seems to have coped with this through a mixture of spiritual retreats, yoga, close contact with dolphins and close consultation of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. He decided to build Salesforce on a corporate culture that, though demanding (Mr Benioff preaches ‘fire fast’ as well as ‘hire fast’), aims to nurture rather than terrorise.

When Apple ex-employee (and Aussie) Ben Farrell left the company earlier this year, his now infamous blog post dissecting the company culture sounded like the words of an escaped P.O.W.:

I am no longer part of the collective iCult machine whose dirty, worn-out, greasy and naive internal mechanisms of bullying, harassment and mind-games push out shiny and polished iPhones every year. I AM FREE.

He concludes his post:

“For a company that claims to enhance people’s lives through technology — they know nothing about life. Nothing at all. I’m disheartened as I loved Apple. I loved their products and I’ve been an advocate for what they allegedly stand for. Unfortunately I’ve seen behind their glossy and polished stainless steel exterior, I’ve walked through their frosted glass doors and seen a toxic culture of manipulation, intimidation, threats and politics that are so incongruent to the values they preach.

Amazon is another company with a culture under the spotlight. A recent New York Times article was damning, describing a culture of unreasonable performance expectations, with many who couldn’t keep up, and who gave up:

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. ‘You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,’ he said. ‘Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.’

The mother of a stillborn child also didn’t make it:

’I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,’ the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored ‘to make sure my focus stayed on my job.’

Apparently an enduring saying at the company goes along the lines of, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

Uber is yet another company with a very aggressive company culture. Some survive it and other don’t, says Melanie Curtin, a former employee and “proud millennial”:

If you’re young and hungry with few attachments, it’s a great option… However, if you’re already somewhat established in your life (mid-to-late 20s, early 30s, or in a relationship), it’s going to be hard. It will be ‘normal’ to spend your entire workweek working until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. every day, then work an all-day event on Saturday, for Uber. You’ll miss seeing your friends and family, and resent the constant feeling that you’re not doing enough, despite working so much. This may wear on you over time, and eventually you may burn out.

What do these companies have in common? Their cultures are toxic. They are all based in the US tech centres of Silicon Valley or NYC and led by “visionary” leaders who set expectations somewhere in the upper stratosphere where anyone but an “unattached” person with no life outside of work is almost certain to fall apart. These expectations are not sustainable, and thus staff churn is high.

Two of my dear ol’ dad’s favourite maxims are worth repeating here:

“The weakness of any organisation is sown in its foundations.” And,
“The foundation of any organisation is leadership.”

Taken together, these make the point that leaders have the privilege and responsibility of making or breaking a company. And over in tech land, a very particular breed of leader seems to be the order of the day: the super-aggressive, “take no prisoners”, hyper-competitive, A-type personality. The problems appear the moment such a leader starts filling the company ranks with others like him or her, writes Rose Powell:

Lisa Rubinstein has seen it all too often — as stress levels rise, biological fight-or-flight responses kick in. Staff focus on self-preservation. Co-workers become less empathetic, less helpful. The culture turns poisonous and ethical standards leave the building, along with many of the staff.
’The challenge is type-A personalities, which the tech industry means when they say “the best”, are wired to be highly competitive,’ says Rubinstein, founder of Axis NeuroPerformance, a consultancy that coaches leaders in emotionally intelligent leadership. ‘And these kinds of people end up pecking each other to death.’

Pecking each other to death. That would be funny were it not utterly real.

Disrupting Disruption

What’s the ethic behind this kind of behaviour? Sure, it may not be acknowledged by most people, and sure, they may not have thought it through, but still, what is the ethic here and where does it come from? Turns out, some analysts think it has a specific contemporary origin: the writings of Ayn Rand.

As one writer, exploring the inner workings of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, franklyobserved:

The truth is, what Silicon Valley still calls ‘Disruption’ has evolved into something very sinister indeed. Or perhaps ‘evolved’ is the wrong word: The underlying ideology — that all government intervention is bad, that the free market is the only protection the public needs, and that if weaker people get trampled underfoot in the process then, well, fuck ’em — increasingly recalls one that has been around for decades. Almost seven decades in fact, since Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ first put her on the radar of every spoiled trust fund brat looking for an excuse to embrace his or her inner asshole.

Called Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy holds a number of tenets as sacred, topmost this doozie:

“Greed good; altruism evil. Objectivists believe rationality is the highest form of morality. Because it’s rational to be self-interested, selfishness is thus a mark of high ethics. Q.E.D. Put another way, Objectivism is a self-fulfilling rationale for life’s injustices: Winners deserve to be winners because they are winners.

While this is not the place to connect the dots between Rand’s philosophy and the beliefs and practices of (many of) Silicon Valley’s eldership of today, suffice it to say that Rand’s two main books — The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged — had a massive influence over all kinds of people, especially in the United States, many of whom are busy “disrupting” in the digital domain.

See where am I’m going here? An “authority voice” like Ayn Rand tells a generation of A-type personalities with narcissistic tendencies that it’s OK to be selfish and to climb over people to win. Then some of these lovely folk go on to build companies with toxic cultures, and we wonder what went wrong?!

Never disrespect or disregard the power of a bad idea in the mouth of an authority figure. So yeah, I’m worried and bothered. Right now this particular kind of bad idea has found a home in a space I hold dear: digital disruption. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not an either/or proposition.

Squareweave is part of a disorganized movement of individuals and companies working in the digital space, disrupting and hacking and driving positive change, but determined to make a difference that doesn’t involve hurting people. We hire the best, and we motivate our people in various positive ways. We are thinking ethically about our culture all the time. And everyone on the team is tasked with owning, tweaking and improving how we work and how we relate.

Thinking ethically is one of the bigger “disruptions” I’d like to see, to business as usual in the tech sector. I think we’re going to have to get honest and tackle some of the really bad ideas that have taken hold. Surely, we can enjoy our wins without inflicting huge losses on the environment, or on workers in the developing world, or on women. Surely, tech startups can grow into successful enterprises without treating their workers little better than expendable spare parts.

Alister Cameron is the Digital Strategy lead at Squareweave, a digital agency that builds websites and mobile apps for social change.
Alister is an irregular blogger and public speaker, exploring the intersection of creative thinking, technology, business strategy and culture.

Got an idea for a project? You can call Squareweave on 1300 77 1337, or email

This article originally appeared on the Squareweave blog.

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