Financial Times Europe - 26.08.2019

(Axel Boer) #1
14 ★ FINANCIAL TIMES Monday26 August 2019


How likely are you to recommend your
company as a place to work?
Would you boast about your
company to your friends? Now, how do
you feel about bigging up your
workplace publicly, or remonstrating
with critics who attack it?
I sense your diminishing enthusiasm.
The first gauge of commitment seems
innocuous. You have probably
answered a version of the question in
an engagement survey. Plenty of
companies, particularly those battling
to hire, say, scarce software engineers,
actively reward staff who convince
qualified contacts to apply for jobs.
Queasiness really only sets in with
the call to display public loyalty and
It is no longer so unusual for people
to show spontaneous online
appreciation for the place they work —
or, more often, the people they work
with. But when Amazon“fulfilment
centre ambassadors”took to social
mediathis month to defend the
company against criticism of working
conditions, Twitter’s inauthenticity
klaxon sounded immediately.
Amazon has been coy about the
details, stating the ambassadors — who
first became visible a year ago — are
real warehouse staff and part of a wider
education programme that also

includes tours of fulfilment centres.
Twitter users dealt with this creepy
public relations campaign in the way
they know best, trolling Amazon’s
dime-a-dozen diplomats and imitating
the accounts so it became impossible to
distinguish reality from parody. Terri
Gerstein, a former labour lawyer now
at Harvard Law School,pointed out on
Slatethat the initiative was part of a
more general rise in “ventriloquist
employers” that use “workers as a prop
to serve company interests”.
Whatever you think of Amazon’s
methods, the logic of the programme is
impeccable. Chief executives have a
bigger megaphone than staff. Yet
people believe that“regular
employees”are more credible when
talking about their company than the
boss or the board. As a 2013survey by
consultancy Bainhighlighted, the snag
is that engagement also declines the
lower a staff member sits in the
Top-down messages of corporate
loyalty are mostly taken as read.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos left little doubt
about how he votes on the engagement
survey when hetook to the stagewith
singers Katy Perry and Lil Nas X last
week at a concert for employees, to
celebrate July’s “Prime Day”
midsummer promotions. “The

curiosity, the passion, the hard work,
everything that I see when I get to work
with you guys, it’s just amazing to me
and it’s awe-inspiring,” he told the
audience, according to Business
Attempts to harness the positive
views of staff, though, are far more
delicate and prone to failure.
I suggested earlier this year that
worker dissentoperates on a rising 5-
point scale — from deflecting orders,
via disregarding, diverting or
disrupting them, up to demonstrating
actively against company policy.
Similarly, happy workers start by
engaging with their employer and
progress through endorsement, to
enthusing (or excusing) it and, finally,
if the company is very lucky, extolling
it in public.
But just as research suggests that
trying to curb dysfunction at work may
increase bad behaviour, coercing staff
up the scale towards cult-like corporate
celebration also risks being counter-
The employee “net promoter score”
that lies behind the first question in
this article is based on the idea that
most companies are peopled by
internal “promoters”, apathetic
“passives” and active “detractors”.
Identifying where they are, and

possibly even who they are, is one way
to spot cultural strengths and
weaknesses. Plenty of consultancies
believe they can help do this.Machine
learningis being enlisted to predict
staff turnover. One serial entrepreneur
told mesuch analysisprovides the
equivalent of “a very accurate MRI
scan, showing areas of inflammation”.
It should therefore also be able to track
hotspots of enthusiasm.
Board director Kirsty Bashforth,
author of a new bookCulture Shift, is
sceptical. She told me companies
should gauge culture improvements
using existing proxies, such as the pace
of innovation, rather than unreliable
and overprecise measures of individual
The Amazon ambassadors’ Twitter
fail suggests how far it has drifted away
from such basics. This will not be the
last time the ecommerce company tries
to weaponise staff loyalty. Next time
you may not be able to spot their lips
move. But the only sure-fire way to
make staff genuinely enthuse about
their employer is to treat them well,
furnish them with the tools and the
time to do their best work, and
congratulate them when they succeed.

It is no longer so
unusual for

people to show

appreciation for

where they work

How Amazon

abused its

precious store

of staff loyalty

Andrew Hill

On management


izza stations, gyms, lavish
headquarters conceptualised
by starchitects, and the
promise of a lucrative career
that also has the potential to
solve world problems. For a long time,
working in Big Tech was the dream for
many young people. But is its status
starting to change?
Big Tech might be concerned about
government fines and PR emergencies,
but its biggest problem couldbe failing
to recruit and keep talented staff. Some
high-profile leavers are going public
with their complaints about the compa-
nies and the lure of Big Tech for gradu-
ates is being eroded.
Last month, for example, Meredith
Whittaker — one of the leaders of 2018’s
Googlestaff walkout to protestagainst
the company’s handling of sexual mis-
conduct cases — announced she was
leaving the company to focus on her
work at the AI Now Institute (which
researches the ethical implications of
artificial intelligence). In April, Ms
Whittakersaid she hadbeen toldshe
would have to “abandon” that work if
she wanted to remain at thegroup.
This month, an anonymous employee
memowent viral at Google. “I’m Not
Returning to Google after Maternity
Leave, and Here is Why” alleged dis-
crimination by a manager.
According to a recentCNBC report
based on conversations with former
Facebook recruiters, the company has
been struggling to win over graduates in
the wake of last year’sCambridge Ana-
lyticascandal. (Facebook has denied
this.) The report says: “Among top
schools, Facebook’s acceptance rate for
full-time positions offered to new grad-
uates has fallen from an average of 85
per cent for the 2017-2018 school year to
between 35 per cent and 55 per cent as of
December.” It also charted a flight from
Facebook tocompetitors (Google), or
rising companies such as Airbnb, Stripe
and Lyft. The report cited ethical and
political concerns among candidates, as
well asthe relevance of Facebook as a
brand among young people.
Companies that started as plucky
upstarts offering their staff autonomy,
creativity and impact are now state-like
global bureaucracies. And the long
hours culture (fuelled by those free piz-
zas)has lost its appeal as burnt-out mil-
lennials seek work-life balance.PwC
estimates88 per cent of millennials
want to work for companies whose val-
ues mirror their own.
Sarah Drinkwater, a former senior
Google staffer and nowdirector at the
Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-
yar Network, saysrevelations about the
role of some tech companies during
the Brexit vote and US election “pre-
sented so many interesting problems.
Misinformation. Bias. Inequality. Tech

workers are seeing the connection
between all these things and wanting to
do something about them.”
Do thetech groups need to worry?
“Previously, if you wanted to work in a
digital company, especially a global
organisation, there were only a handful
available. But now there are many,
including Spotify, or Monzo,” says Ms
Drinkwater. “Plus, 18-24-year-olds, it’s
well established, are looking for more
purpose in their work. Purpose can be
defined in a few ways but it often comes
down tohaving high-level vision and a
sense of personal impact. With huge
employee bases, both these things get
diluted [in Big Tech]. If tech workers
don’t want to feel like a cog in a massive
machine, they no longer need to.”
While tech is still lucrative (according
to Hired.comthe global average salary is
$135,000) the distorting impact of tech
companies on the cost of living intheir
stronghold cities increasingly cancels
out much of the benefit.
“The money could never have been
enough,” says Edward Vince, recently
appointed Airbnb’s creative director for
Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He
has returned to the UK, having relo-
cated to the US five years agoto work at
Apple, then Facebook. “When you get to
San Francisco, you soon realise that this
amazing salary and lifestyle you’re
offered comes at a huge compromise
and cost, and won’t make you wealthy in
the way that you envision, especially as
you realisethe cost of living. We spent
over $40,000 on childcare last year.”
The lack of diversity in Big Tech was
also an issue. “There’s a monoculture
in the valley. You often don’t interact
with anyone until you get to the office.
You’re hermetically sealed and do not
experience the real world and yet
you are supposed to — in Facebook’s
case — be serving a community of 2.5bn.
But without any perspective on reality.
I found that really concerning.”

Having worked for small creative
companies and in his own studio, Mr
Vince also struggled with the culture.
“You have this whole idea that you’re
being hired for who you are as a person.
But you quickly realise that was all just a
nice-to-have. They hire all these amaz-
ing creatives from around the world to
bring different and diverse perspectives
then immediately just want you to fit
in.” Mr Vince was also troubled by the
lack of critical thinking. “The culture is,
‘Be nice. But don’t be critical’. You rarely
find people who are critical of the work
and the companies themselves. People
want a good review and a good bonus.”
Mr Vince may be part of a growing
trend. In May 2019, Doteveryone, a UK-
based think-tank for responsible tech,

released“People, Power and Technol-
ogy : The Tech Workers’ View”, the first
in-depth research into the attitudes of
people who design and build digital
technologies in the UK. It found that
workers are “calling for an end to the era
of moving fast and breaking things”.
And more than a quarter (28 per
cent) of UK tech workers have seen
decisions made about a technology that
they felt could have negative conse-
quences for people or society. Nearly
one in five (18 per cent) of those went on
to leave their companies as a result. The
survey found that tech workers want
more time and resources to think about
the impact of their products.
Despite their concerns, the vast
majority of tech workers still believe
technology is a force for good. Ms Drink-
water believes thatemployees could be
a key force in making much-needed

changesat Big Tech companies.Experts
in specialist areas of tech, AI and data
have a unique vantage point that public
policymakers might not. And empower-
ing them in what she calls “positive dis-
sent” could be the way to keep them.
“Tech workers are well-placed to have
foresight about impact of technologies
on society and nuances of this, as they
live it every day. Having this group
involved in understanding implications
and developing solutions could be a
force for good inside tech companies.
And tech companies are increasingly
receptive to this, they know they need
Ms Drinkwateris one of anumber of
Big Tech workersswitching to the fields
of state-work, think-tanks or more
inclusive tech companies. Her Tech and
Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Net-
work is part investment fund, part
think-tank and lab, aimed at helping
“technologists prevent, mitigate and
correct societal downsides of technol-
ogy — and maximise positive impact.”
She was previously head of Campus
London, Google’sstart-up hub. “I was
working with this incredible array of
start-ups, but I also saw that funding
tended to get in the hands of quite a
homogenous group.”
Does Ms Drinkwater think Big Tech is
evil? “It’s easy to take quite a binary
view but technology can still be part of
the solution.. .The problem is that
there are two quite extreme points of
view — one that tech workers are the
new bankers, or defensiveness from
tech workers about what they are build-
ing, pointing out immense utility we get
from tech tools.And the utility is amaz-
ing. I worked on Google Maps and am
still very proud of this. No one can deny
the utility of Uber. I believe there’s a
third way, though. One where tech can
be responsible and a force for good.”

The writer is author of ‘Silicon States’

After decades of cool, Big Tech may

be losing some of its allure

Reputational crises and
nimble start-ups are

making it harder for
groups to attract talented

staff. By Lucie Greene

believes that
employees could
play a key part
in making
changes at Big
Tech— Anna Gordon/FT

Companies that started as

plucky upstarts offering

staff autonomy are

now global bureaucracies

Working lives

This week’s problem
I have just graduated and
want to build a career in
education, with the view to
eventually undertaking a
leadership role. Iam
thinking of doing an MSc in
educational science before
qualifying as a teacher in the
hope it will accelerate my
career. Is this how employers
would view my masters? Or
would it be better to return
to university later in my
career?Female, 20s

Jonathan’s answer
As a new graduate, it is good
you have a clear direction: a
career in education and an
aspiration for leadership. Your
plan seems specific enough
to be helpful, but nottoo
restrictive to prevent you
taking up any opportunities
that emerge in future. You
have effectively defined
where you see yourself in five
to 10 years’ time.
Your eventual leadership
role in education could be in
the classroom, a think-tank,
charity, local or national
government — what is
unclear is whether it would
help to have a teaching
qualification and experience,
and/or to have a masters.To
assess this, talk to people
who have those jobs currently
and analyse the essential
criteria in job ads to see if
masters degrees are needed.
Further education should
primarily be taken for its
intrinsic value and the
fascination and drive you
have for developing your
knowledge in the subject. Of
course qualifications enhance
career prospects but without
a core interest in the subject,
it is going to feel a long (and
expensive) course.
As to timing, you may find
you will get more from a
masters course once you
have some hands-on
Fundamentally, you are
trying to predict the future
and what your potential
employerin five years’ time
will be seeking. As Banquo
said to the three witches in
William Shakespeare’s
Macbeth: “If you can look into
the seeds of time, / And say
which grain will grow and
which will not, / Speak then to
me, who neither beg nor fear
/ Your favours nor your hate.”
Across all industries,
people are contemplating the
potential effect of artificial
intelligence on jobs, in other
words, which grain will grow
and which will not. The OECD
predicts 14 per cent of today’s
jobs could be fully automated
and 32 per cent “change

Against this background,
how can you prepare and put
yourself in the best position
to achieve your long-term
goals? Even better, how could
you accelerate your
progression? In general,
organisations employ people
who demonstrate that they
take responsibility, achieve
things and areteam players.
In your current and any
future role, ensure you not
only develop these
transferable skills but also
add well-regarded
qualifications. Maximise your
choices of a leadership role in
all branches of education and
also your chances of securing
the role sooner, with both a
teaching qualification and a
masters degree — probably
in that order.

FT readers respond
Teach first for 3-4 years, and
then (if you must) go
back... Being a teacher
involves more than just
smarts and want-tos. A very
particular disposition is
required for it, which many
people don’t have. Treat the
first few years as making sure
that you’re not wasting your
life.the big Lebowski

To develop your prospects of
achieving a career in a
leadership position pursue
development and
qualifications in management
and leadership. An MSc in
educational science won’t
give you an edge on the
career ladder if you aren’t
competent at running things.
Kane Clements

Next problem
I work in marketing at a small
tech business. It has been the
best role I have had. But
following a recent work party,
the work environment has
changed. It has become toxic
after details were shared that
revealed relationships were
not what they seemed. And
apparently my line manager
finds me intolerable. How do I
negotiate this toxic culture
and navigate the apparent
grudge that a senior
colleague holds against me?
Female 20s

Jonathan Black is director
of the Careers Service at
the University of Oxford.
Every fortnight he answers
your questions on personal
and career development
and working life. Do you
have a question for
Jonathan? Email him at

Add your answers to
readers’ problems at

Dear Jonathan



I study a

masters to


my career?

             

RELEASED BY "What's News"

ues mirror their own.

RELEASED BY "What's News"

ues mirror their own.
Sarah Drinkwater, a former senior

RELEASED BY "What's News"

Sarah Drinkwater, a former senior
Google staffer and now

RELEASED BY "What's News"

Google staffer and now
Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-

RELEASED BY "What's News"

Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-
yar Network, says

RELEASED BY "What's News"

yar Network, says
role of some tech companies during

RELEASED BY "What's News"

role of some tech companies during
the Brexit vote and US election “pre-

RELEASED BY "What's News"

the Brexit vote and US election “pre-
sented so many interesting problems.

RELEASED BY "What's News"

sented so many interesting problems.vk.

the Brexit vote and US election “pre-

the Brexit vote and US election “pre-
sented so many interesting problems.sented so many interesting problems.vk.


yar Network, says


yar Network, says
role of some tech companies during

role of some tech companies during
the Brexit vote and US election “pre-the Brexit vote and US election “pre-com/w
sented so many interesting problems.

sented so many interesting problems.


Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-

Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-
yar Network, saysyar Network, sayssnws


Google staffer and now


Google staffer and now
Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-


Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omid-
yar Network, says


yar Network, saysrevelations about the


revelations about the
role of some tech companies during


role of some tech companies during
the Brexit vote and US election “pre-


the Brexit vote and US election “pre-
sented so many interesting problems.


sented so many interesting problems.
Misinformation. Bias. Inequality. Tech


Misinformation. Bias. Inequality. Tech
Free download pdf