My door is open if you want to talk about power
Public reckonings at Mailchimp and Gimlet shed light on the ways common listening strategies ignore power dynamics.
February was a busy month for the workplace injustice beat:
Zoë Schiffer spoke to 11 current and former Mailchimp employees about allegations of systemic racism and sexism at the Atlanta-based company. [Update: BusinessInsider just published its own investigation; a Mailchimp spokesperson wrote “over the years we’ve made the mistake of prioritizing business success over our own culture,” with seemingly no appreciation of the false choice implied.]
James T. Green, formerly of Gimlet Media, shared a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s two-class system of white staffers and largely Black and Brown contract producers. This followed a reckoning at Gimlet, which is owned by Spotify, over another former employee’s allegations of systemic racism, intimidation, and union-busting. [Update: the day after this was published, the New York Times published a deeper look at what happened, with one source attributing the latest debacle to “insufficient self-reflection.”]
At both companies, senior leaders were aware of the problems. Before leaving Mailchimp, Angelo Ragin reached out to cofounders Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius, who’d relied on his help for years, about the constant stream of microaggressions. At Gimlet, Green took his concerns to cofounders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber after they began to hold open office hours.
If they knew what was going on, why didn’t these founders take action? Some might argue their options are constrained by investors, but with VCs competing to be the most “founder-friendly”, boards tend to stay out of the way. And even if you assume they intentionally put profit over people, bad PR is bad business. Why wait until the pot boils over?
Here’s one reason: most companies still rely on outdated passive listening strategies that ignore the underlying power dynamics while allowing leaders to dismiss feedback they don’t like.
Open office hours are one example of a passive listening strategy; other common practices include focus groups, asking employees to share feedback in performance reviews, and even “anonymous” Q&As at all-hands, which often end with management and coworkers playing detective to unmask the source.
Open-door policies are a natural fit for tech companies, where “open” is often a core value. But critically, rather than actively seeking out employees’ feedback, this approach hands over responsibility by asking them to decide what’s critical enough to speak up about. That’s a high bar, and a tough call for employees, especially marginalized ones. Asking them to speak up in front of coworkers and managers, knowing that a negative comment can harm relationships, and all but guarantees some employees will choose silence over candor.
What’s more, passive listening can give leaders a false sense of security. After all, if no one’s voicing concerns when everyone has the chance, things must be fine. When employees do speak up, leadership teams become reactive, arguing over basic facts and dismissing isolated stories as anecdata. Based on what we know about what happened at Mailchimp and Gimlet, there’s reason to believe these kinds of passive strategies contributed to the mess.
So what would a proactive listening strategy, one that acknowledges these power dynamics, look like in practice?
It would involve actively reaching out to every employee for feedback, rather than waiting for those with severe concerns to speak up.
It would rely on one-to-one conversations, rather than requiring employees to speak up in front of others with power over their careers.
It would allow for nuanced feedback with enough context to see what’s going on while still protecting employees’ anonymity.
Given the examples here, it’s important to note that proactive listening isn’t just about reporting misconduct or individual concerns. Regular, high-bandwidth conversations about employees’ experiences and needs help HR uncover blind spots and systemic patterns of frustration. In the best cases, this can lead to meaningful changes that benefit the entire company.
Proactive listening isn’t exactly new: enough companies do stay interviews, in which managers attempt to discover why their employees stick around, that both HBR and SHRM have templates for them. But strategies like these are rare in tech, where the extra effort required makes them a tough sell for teams used to moving fast. While there’s no way to know how (or if) more proactive listening would have changed the outcomes at Gimlet and Mailchimp, at the very least it would have removed a clear obstacle to change.
Of course, listening alone can’t fix an unhealthy culture, and there’s no harm in making office hours part of a wider listening strategy. But as long as tech companies keep relying on passive listening, leaders will continue to get most of their feedback from a vocal minority, and all they’ll see is the tip of the iceberg.
In tech, an industry with a quasi-religious love of free, open communication, companies that truly understand how employees feel—and why—are surprisingly rare.
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