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Perversion of Values

When Company Culture is Weaponized Against Employees

By Hannah Landers

Thoughtful. Customer-obsessed. Iterative. Powerful. Accessible. In it together.

This list of adjectives conjures a workplace of camaraderie and shared responsibility—one in which every employee’s achievements are celebrated, and any mistakes are seen as learning opportunities for the entire team to move forward together.

Reality can be a bit less picturesque. Those adjectives are the core values of Away, the trendy luggage maker that has recently come under fire for its toxic culture, which is marked by long hours with little pay, constant surveillance, and public bullying. Many startups have found themselves in similar situations; almost all startups suffer from limited time, people, and money, and have similarly struggled in building a healthy, sustainable culture that can thrive alongside demands from customers and investors—especially when the brand is hyper-fueled by celebrity endorsements and $181 million in funding.

The fact that Away didn’t act in a way that enforced the positive, empowering elements of its core values was not what was surprising; brands with similarly meteoric rises, such as Uber, have faced similar failures of employee culture. What is shocking, however, is the ways in which these core values were weaponized to keep employees working harder and longer, to support the questionable tactics of the company’s CEO, and to otherwise create an environment that ground down even the most fervent employees. Rather than using its core values to address the problems with its internal culture, Away’s leadership guilted, coerced, and bullied its employees—using its core values as the key weapon in that fight.

Like many organizations that have had to grapple with rapid success, Away was founded with the intent of disrupting an established industry: luggage. Founders Jen Rubio and Steph Korey were inspired by Rubio’s broken suitcase, which inspired the idea that would eventually become Away.

“…we decided to pursue the opportunity after asking ourselves, ‘Why is good luggage so expensive? How come there are no luggage brands that people are proud to recommend?’” Rubio told Fortune in July 2019. More than simply making Away a brand for affordable, iconic luggage, Rubio and Korey set out to make the name synonymous with the very idea of travel and adventure.

“We saw an opportunity to tell a more compelling story about travel, one that got people excited about what they could do with their luggage and where they could go with it,” Rubio said in a 2018 interview with Authority Magazine.

This storytelling became a key piece of the external-facing brand: “Getting Away means getting more of out of every trip to come,” according to the brand’s mission. Away’s Instagram is dotted with beautifully framed shots of snow-dusted Alpine towns and stunning cityscapes between artfully staged product shots. The brand regularly received glowing write-ups in publications such as CondéNastTraveler, and rolled out collaborations with the likes of jet-setting model Karlie Kloss and travel photographer Gray Malin

Initially, this well-coiffed, millennial-friendly image seemed to extend to Away’s internal culture as well. In September 2018, Korey (who was Away’s CEO at the time) penned a “how-to” article for Inc. that divulged “The 5 Keys to a Top-Notch Company Culture.” In addition to suggestions such as to “treat the way you build your culture as a core business strategy” and to “empower…employees to do the best work of their life” by granting them autonomy and trust to think creatively and lead freely, one suggestion stands stark: “Make sure that your core values are more than writing on the wall.”

Korey explained how Away doesn’t simply pay lip services to its values; rather, they are “ingrained” into the way that the team does its work every day: “Our values aren’t just words on a wall, but a guiding philosophy that we put into practice every single day.”

Core values are “the fundamental beliefs of a person or organization.” Not only do these values help define the difference between right and wrong, and provide a general blueprint for behavior; they are also a good litmus test for whether a company is on track to achieve its goals. According to a joint study by HR solutions software company Workhuman (formerly Globoforce) and IBM, only 30 percent of employees feel as though they’re having a positive experience at work when their experience doesn’t align with the organization’s core values.

Both Korey and Rubio, the latter of whom serves as Away’s president and chief brand officer, recognized the appeal of these values, using the brand that Away had cultivated internally and externally to attract young employees. “Lauren,” an anonymous former employee who joined Away in 2017 as a member of the customer experience team, was excited by the prospect of working for a company she had seen plastered “all over Instagram,” and was constantly reminded that she was “joining a movement” that plenty of others would have killed to be a part of—ideas expressed in Away’s values of “Powerful” and “In it together.”

As the months of late nights up working and lack of vacation time piled up, however, the use of these core values to keep employees motivated became far more manipulative. Lauren’s manager, for example, would send Slack messages to her team mentioning that she would be working late tonight, and that “dinner is here if any of you can work beside me.” She would add that employees could leave if they “had to,” but that she had to stay—exploiting Away’s value of “In it together” to guilt the team into putting in an equally long night.

One of the most appalling examples of this manipulation of the core values came at the close of 2017. Lauren and her team had been pulling long nights and weekends responding to thousands of customer inquiries, all with the promise of New Year’s Day—a guaranteed day off—motivating them to keep working. But on New Year’s Eve, Lauren and her team received a Slack message from their manager stating that the team was behind on responding to customers, and laying out two options: continue with their day off as planned and fall even further behind, or work on their promised day off in exchange for a month of PTO at some point in the near future.

What’s alarming about this message isn’t the last-minute demand to work longer hours—plenty of startups have experienced an unexpected crunch time, especially in the case of a B2C brand around the holidays—but the way in which the message was couched in the language of Away’s core values.

The manager opens her message with an effusive note about how lucky she is to work with “13 of the most dedicated, accomplished, professional, energetic, lovely, and caring girls” she has ever encountered, before pivoting into the choice that the team has to make. She explains this choice in a way that echoes Away’s value of “In it together,” mentioning that she will be in the office tomorrow for those who would like to join her, and that she knows just how “unfair and egregious” this request may seem.

“…I would never ask something of you that I didn’t think we were capable of,” the message concludes, followed by another unrestrained outflow of love and appreciation. In the end, the team did end up working on New Year’s Day, though it was not a decision made with relish: “I burst into tears,” another employee on the customer experience team said upon reading the message. “I was trying to finish so I could have my first day off in weeks.” When the employee’s mother suggested that she simply say no to the request, the employee replied that she couldn’t do such a thing—the communal, thoughtful way that the request was made left the employee feeling as though she didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Instagram feeds and public persona is how Away’s story is understood externally, but core values are how that story is interpreted internally. Investing in a public narrative of travel and adventure attracted customers, but it also provided employees a reasonable lens through which to interpret the core values—and a rightful sense of frustration when Away did not deliver with the same positivity as espoused externally.

Brands much less prominent than Away can experience a backfiring of their core values. A 2002 article in Harvard Business Review examined a pseudonymous (but real) company called Maverick Advertising. Founder John Bryant (also a false name for a real individual) formed the company in the late 1980s as an antithesis to everything he hated about big-name advertising companies; Maverick’s core values were centered on employee growth, diversity and belonging, and work-life balance.

However, after studying the company from 1994 to 1999, HBR uncovered that the core values were both the things that employees prized and the source of their ire. In 1995, for example, Bryant had made the decision to invest in the company’s growth by doubling the staff and the number of projects the company took on. While Bryant saw this as a chance to provide more opportunities for his employees to further their careers and professional skills in line with the company’s core values, his employees saw the decision as one motivated by greed—and firmly out of line with the company’s supposed spurning of materialism and extravagance. Following this disconnect, employees began to see more and more inconsistencies in the core values and Bryant’s behavior and decisions.

HBR came to the conclusion that interpretations of the core values are just as important as the establishment of the values themselves. Where Bryant saw his decisions as enforcing the values in one way, employees saw his actions as a clear violation of what they had determined the values to mean. Away’s actions may have been a bit more pernicious, the same rings true: Where employees like Lauren may have interpreted Away’s core values as ones indicative of an empowering and community-driven workplace, leadership at Away saw them as leverage to coerce employees into working harder and longer.

In today’s purpose-driven workplace, employers accept the importance of defined core values. But while many have focused on the benefits of simply developing a set of adjectives, far fewer have delved into what exactly makes those values successful or not. It’s not enough to simply value transparency, for example; both employees and leadership also need to be aligned on the ways in which transparency applies to the brand’s mission and purpose—the universal truth that drives all that the business does. Aligning these key elements of the brand with its overarching strategic story puts all parties on the same page—and keeps core values from rotting a brand from the inside out.

Hannah is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Hannah on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.