Toxic and Woke Engineering Orgs

Why are organizations committed to positive ideals so often shitty to their employees?

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I have a checklist of things I talk to new hires joining my team about during our first 1:1. Top of that list is the word boundaries double underlined. By the end of that first conversation I want to have covered the importance of three different categories of boundaries I consider absolutely essential to doing any kind of social impact based work.

Internal boundaries: How you treat yourself. Getting enough sleep, eating right, getting regular exercise, etc. Everybody’s different here and what I want from my employees is not that they fit a certain mold but that they give me a general idea of what these boundaries look like for them so that I can flag when their patterns have changed. Some software engineers legitimately prefer to work at 3am. I don’t have a problem with that, but I have a problem with an engineer working both days and nights.

External boundaries: What parts of your life are work zones, and what parts are personal zones. This is something we set together because part of my job (as I see it) is holding the organization accountable to these standards. External boundaries include traditional “work-life balance” issues like work hours, norms around overtime and the conditions in which it’s considered okay to violate those norms and infringe on non-work space. Some examples include: on call rotations may trigger pages during what would normally be non-work hours, travel days might be on weekends, people might work longer hours leading up to a deadline (although here the key thing to define is how often that can happen before it’s a problem. Once or twice a year might be okay, once a month definitely is not).

Interpersonal boundaries: The relationships you have with coworkers. When working on something with a social good in mind, people tend to underestimate how stressful the experience is. I mean they really do. And when the stress catches people by surprise, their coping mechanisms can dump that stress on to others without them meaning to. This is particularly important when the work requires a security clearance. The best way to protect yourself is to set boundaries with each relationship. Are you friends? Is it okay to confide in you? Lean on you for support? What topics are off limits? As a manager I don’t need to know the details of each determination. I just explain that they should set those boundaries. They’ll be better off if they’re proactive on this subject.

Much of Silicon Valley pushes the narrative that the Google and Facebooks of the world are better places to work because they are less corporate, less hierarchal, more informal, more value driven. Tech companies will often pay lip service to the social justice issues of the day, their ethics, their campaigns to give back, how woke they are compared to soulless profit seeking corporations.

But industries that emphasize social good, innovation, or other impact based values can be toxic to their individual workers. VERY TOXIC in fact. So prevalent is the good-for-the-world/bad-for-me dynamic that one researcher remarked she could “literally copy and paste” horror stories from one worker to another.

I’ve seen these dynamics play out in nonprofits, in political campaigns, in community organizations, in grassroots campaigns. Because tech startups love to recruit on the idea that they are changing the world, they also play out in tech startups.

And while there are components of toxic workplaces that are not explained by improper boundaries — institutional sexism and racism come to mind — the cycle of boundary pushing elevating stress levels leading to emotionally and psychologically abusive behavior is so tragic because it is so preventable. And it is so hard to resolve when it does happen because it is often misattributed as hypocrisy or a few sociopathic bad apples.

It is so easy for social good organizations to become toxic workplaces because it is so easy to violate or indeed completely throw out appropriate boundaries. Workers often volunteer to violate their own boundaries! When the cause is important, boundaries often seem like blockers to more of a good thing. It’s a good thing to work all the time if you love your job. It’s a good thing to be close friends with colleagues because it means you care about each other. It’s a good thing to represent your full and complete self at work because it means you’re accepted.

That’s bullshit. Even water is poison in a high enough dosage.

The biggest mistake organizations make with boundaries is over socializing. It’s good to get people together informally from time to time. It’s good to have staff parties, happy hours, maybe a company sports team or an outing. All of these things are great for team building and bonding. But the more often you turn the work space into a friend space the more people start to see their colleagues as friends.

That’s problematic because people expect loyalty and conformity from their friends. Nobody really talks about it that way, but it’s true. You want your friends to agree with you and when they don’t it bothers you much more than it would if an acquaintance disagreed. The more strongly you feel about a subject, the more difficult it is for you to deal with disagreement from friends.

People need to be able to disagree at work. Teams can’t make good decisions if they can’t disagree. And while some friendships survive or even thrive on debate, people still tend to take dissent much more personally from their friends.

People also tend to take more liberties with their friends. You are less embarrassed about showing up late or inconveniencing a friend because you assume that close bond will guarantee you forgiveness.

What’s more, once workplaces start over socializing they tend to get defensive about it and see not engaging as a form of rejection in and of itself. Off hour events slowly become not optional. Not wanting to be BFFs or “part of the family” becomes an offense on equal level with missing deadlines and deliverables.

Tech companies keep asking employees to leave their politics at the door, while at the same time encouraging them to bring their hobbies to work, consume from the bounty of free meals, dress entirely in company swag, join internal networks for your specific identity groups, rebuild your entire life to revolve around your employer but leave your politics at home.

The net effect of offering a wide array of perks not related to work functions (like free meals, laundry, hair cuts and exercise classes) and encouraging people to network in a professional space based on personal interests is that the boundaries between work and life get blurry. As an employer you’re asking employees to look to the work environment to satisfy personal needs. Once you’re doing home stuff at work it’s hard to shake the association.

The benefit to the company is that employees that are enmeshed in this fashion — with no life beyond the company — are more loyal, tolerate more abuse, and work longer hours.

But the reality is that people in these environments will bring their politics to work because they’ve already brought everything else! This is problematic no matter what the politics in question are. Great teams are powered by diversity, and within that diversity — no matter how you define it — are going to be a range of political opinions. Women are not a monolith. People of color are not a monolith. Even the much maligned tech bros are not uniform in their political beliefs. Some people are liberal except for a few key issues. Some people follow the traditional mold of fiscal conservatism and roll their eyes at the “moral majority” rhetoric of the right. None of these opinions is in any way relevant to work, but you can only keep them out of the work space if there’s an alternative space for them to be expressed. The more the work space attempts to encroach on the personal space, the harder it is for people to leave their politics at home.

The combination of enmeshed and over socialized is particularly common and particularly toxic. People are more likely to bring their private feelings to work and much more likely to be outraged when members of their work family have a different perspective.

Just as people bring their politics to work when work space encroaches on personal space, they also have no outlet for their stress other than their colleagues. I remember the first time an assignment I had for USDS truly went south. I suddenly had no escape from the anxiety about it because I had moved to a new city for work and the only people I knew were work people. There was no option to blow off steam and forget about it, anyone I might go out with was a reminder of the stress.

Stressed out coworkers are abusive coworkers. Misery does in fact love company as it turns out. This is more prevalent in organizations that claim to be mission or value driven because people convince themselves that for the sake of the mission they must endure it. They don’t set or enforce their boundaries. Then when things start to really hurt, over socialization makes everyone more defensive about resolving the situation. A cycle of abuse and silencing or covering up abuse gets going and accelerates burn out.

As a manager my number one priority is trying to put guide rails in place so this doesn’t happen. But its complicated by the fact that for a lot of people in tech a boundary-less work life is the fantasy. Here are some common problems and how I resolve them:

The engineer who wants to work all the time because “work is fun”: Trust me, there’s always at least one. I have heard some variation on the argument that working extra hours is fine if it’s voluntary hundreds of times. It’s really not. It’s sometimes necessary to work extra hours in certain cases, but not as a regular habit. It’s not just about burning out the one engineer who is “having fun” working 10 hours a day, it’s about maintaining the incentives that keep those extra hours “optional” in the first place.

If you’re working extra hours, one presumes that you are accomplishing more in a day than those team members not doing so. When promotions and other opportunities come up, how should I as a manager evaluate everyone fairly? Do I punish the overworker by disqualifying some of her accomplishments? If so how do I fairly determine which ones don’t count and communicate that back? Or do I punish her colleagues who didn’t volunteer for the extra work and therefore didn’t accomplish as much? In this way “optional” extra work quickly becomes not optional at all.

The company that loves to party together: I find the best way to encourage people to indulge in perks in moderation is by example. As I climb the management ladder I find myself becoming more and more selective about what company social events I attend. If the boss isn’t there, there’s much less pressure to attend. Friendships and relationships will happen at work. Cliques may form. The goal isn’t to prevent that, but to make sure everyone has the freedom to determine how much or how little social interaction is right for them.

In practice this is just a lot of 1:1 work. Everyone has a different tolerance. People need to be able to match their level of engagement to their comfort level. There’s no specific number of interactions before an acquaintance becomes a confidant. Extroverts tend to have a higher tolerance and can have many different personal interactions before they feel a real bond with one person. Introverts tend to feel individual interactions more and therefore have a lower tolerance. The important thing is to make sure everyone has the ability to set their limit in the right place and that the organization is not creating a race to the bottom. Push the idea of all things in moderation over mandatory fun.

The manager who wants to be friends with her direct reports: For me this is the hardest part, but everyone benefits from bosses understanding that there are different types of close relationships. You want your employees to trust you, to like and respect you, but you can’t be friends. Friends should stand on an equal playing field. Bosses that have legitimate friendships with employees work at organizations where the rules are different for those friends. That power will be abused.

Whenever possible I do not report up to my friends and I don’t bring friends in to report up to me. I make sure that my direct reports have space to hangout and bond without me. It is possible to transition from a friendship to a working relationship and back, but the deeper the friendship the harder it is to do. I’ve been fortunate in that the few times I’ve gone to work for a friend, they’ve been of the same mind as me on this issue and were not offended when I put some distance between us.

I’m a little more flexible in the relationships I have with tech leads, architects and principal engineers. Even though those people report up to me, their role in the organization makes them closer to my peer than a senior software engineer. So they are gray areas of course. There will always be gray areas.

Boundaries are hard. They’re hard because each person has to know themselves and what their needs are and they’re hard because people are not used to talking about these things. As a manager you should spend a little time figuring out what your recommended baseline is. What work patterns would alarm you if you saw a direct report following them?

I tell my staff engineers and principal engineers that I want them to aim to 6–7 hour work days as much as possible. This always catches people by surprise and opens up a good conversation. My rationale is two fold: first, when work goals aren’t realistically set and schedules are slipping it takes time for that to become obvious and even more time to rearrange plans and deliverables in order to stop it. The most senior engineers always feel the crunch first and 6–7 hour days buys me some time to identify the issue and fix it before people start burning out. The second reason is because I want my teams on-call for what they build. To me that one or two hours short is not cheating the company out of anything, it’s putting some time in the bank. When incidents do happen I want my team coming into them focused and refreshed. Since I cannot predict when incidents will happen it makes sense to pay breaks forward regularly and then balance with additional formal comp time as needed.

The other thing I emphasize to my direct reports is that work does not begin and end with shipping code or closing issues. Thinking about the best way to do something is work. Traveling on official trips is work. Relationship building among colleagues is work. Anything that you do that the company benefits from should be classified as work. Therefore when I ask “how much of your time is at work?” I want all of those things included too. Time you spend on a plane flying to an offsite is time you cannot spend with your family. The fact that you were reading a magazine on the flight does not matter. When we talk about where the work space ends and the personal space begins we factor in those activities too.

Again this is a great springboard for discussion because most people are used to thinking about work in terms of what is invoice-able. But on most engineering teams this isn’t an accurate reflection of how work gets done. When I introduce the idea that maybe the category of work hours includes more it gets people thinking and makes it easier for them to define their boundaries.

Lastly I make it clear to my people that despite all this my advice is just that: advice. They need to set their boundaries where they feel comfortable and my role is to help them to do that, not babysit them. I have certain hard limits I will put my foot down on. I have in extreme cases forced people to take vacation time by cutting off their access. But I much prefer to trust them. A great team is something we build together.

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)

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