It’s never easy to run a company, let alone start one. But right now might be a particularly hard time to lead one. Much in the world is changing rapidly, including the relationship we have to our jobs, work, and careers. What’s worrisome, though, is that so many business leaders have a surprisingly defeatist attitude about it. All too often, I hear complaints from my fellow CEOs, like “People today are never happy!” or “They’ll never say you’re doing the right thing!” These gripes arise when leaders are talking about employees, and in discussions about customers or communities. Worse, these attitudes are often shared publicly. That leads to managers disconnecting from the expectations of their employees, and to organizations disconnecting from the expectations of their most important audiences.
These leaders are making a straightforward, but pernicious, assertion: It’s impossible to meet people’s expectations today. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Workers are overwhelmingly reasonable. They simply want a new set of concerns addressed, in addition to the basics that every workplace should provide (fair pay, good working conditions). Customers, meanwhile, simply want to understand how to have a fair exchange of goods and services. Once we’re willing to consider that people are reasonable and that meeting their needs is achievable, the “impossible” becomes possible.
Workers are overwhelmingly reasonable. They simply want a new set of concerns addressed.
At Glitch, we’re both an established 20-year-old company and a brand-new startup. Under our prior name, Fog Creek Software, we incubated popular productivity tools, like Trello, and co-created valuable communities, like Stack Overflow. As Glitch, we’re building a coding platform and creative community that learns from those past successes while enabling anyone to create an app instantly.
Our history means that we have both the entrenched legacy of decades of being in business and the growing pains and constant change of a rapidly expanding new company. In that environment, it’s even more essential to get the big things right—to build a strong business, to protect against brand risk, to retain and recruit amazing people, and to support the values most of us say we support on paper. The company’s transformation has also given us a chance to iterate through a lot more ideas about how to do business—and how to support our employees—than most companies can. Here’s what we’ve found works.
Can anyone trust a company in today’s world—especially a tech company? And can any tech company earn trust?
It’s not impossible, but it takes something counterintuitive: being boring. That is, being incredibly, mind-numbingly consistent. As a company, there can be no gap between the stated values of your organization and what it practices. This starts with writing down those values—not just platitudes about “doing our best” but specific, detailed goals that can be used to help make decisions about the company’s everyday actions. Being boring means having a culture where leaders can be vulnerable and honest about the company’s shortcomings and unrealized aspirations.
At Glitch, everyone in the company— more than 50 employees—contributes to a document stating our values. Then, we publish those values as part of our company handbook (which we make publicly available on the web). That effort demonstrates that we’re ready to be held accountable both privately and publicly. Through repeating this exercise, working through our values as the company changes, we’ve seen that we can earn the trust of both our team and our customers. Prospective employees routinely mention our documented culture as a marker of trust that made them more interested in working at Glitch. And the trust we’ve built through our openness means that during the inevitable times when we fall short, people are willing to help us do better.
Best of all, that trust goes two ways. Since we all have an explicit set of values we’re working toward, as a complement to the usual corporate platitudes, we can trust every single employee to solve their own problems at work by building their own tools, whether it’s an entry in that open-source company handbook or any of the countless other apps that our team is able to create using Glitch.
Little causes more stress in an organization than unfairness. People who don’t get a fair chance at career advancement or who are treated unfairly by their managers never forget those wrongs. And customers who hear about a company being unfair to its workers or community may become permanently skeptical.
Even the perception of unfairness can be incredibly destructive. Too many companies respond to the fear of being called out for unfairness by burying evidence that might expose the potential inequities in their systems. That impulse to hide things makes it impossible for people to trust that any system is fair.
As it turns out, this is solvable, too: Write things down.
Consider compensation. It’s one of the most common areas of unfairness, especially given the massive historic inequities in the compensation and promotion of underrepresented workers. It’s no surprise that there’s little trust around pay. On top of those broader concerns come more personal communication styles and discomforts. Negotiating pay is a stressful and difficult part of team dynamics—for both managers and employees.
So we don’t do salary negotiations at Glitch. Instead, we’ve written down how compensation works, made it consistent, and then documented the process so that everyone can understand it. Everyone in the company knows what their compensation will be, and that they’re being treated like everyone else with equivalent experience and responsibilities.
Though we’re still far from perfect, we’ve been able to radically change our company for the better. Trust around pay has made our company more productive: Neither managers nor individual contributors are forced to waste time on battles over pay or raises during one-on-ones or while giving performance feedback. Our HR and personnel teams have significantly less overhead in managing compensation. And relationships between coworkers are less fraught: People don’t have to worry whether they’re being compensated fairly in comparison to others in the same role and level.
We’re always refining and revising our practices based on feedback from the team, the evolution of our organization, a desire to provide clear paths for advancement and development, and responses from candidates who’ve interviewed to join the company. Salary transparency is not a process that’s ever “finished.”
Does your company talk about making its recruiting more inclusive as a way to reduce costs by diminishing future risk, or does it still talk about inclusive recruiting as an extra expense? Has anyone analyzed whether marginalized communities trust your organization to understand their concerns, and how distrust translates into potential lost opportunities for your business?
Nearly every company and executive knows the right words to say about inclusion. You’ll hear “Our company values diversity and inclusion,” plus some touting of support or sponsorship for a worthy organization.
Most companies, however, don’t actually undertake their inclusion efforts with the same seriousness that they apply to other business-critical concerns. That’s a problem: Inclusion is business-critical.
Every company knows that cybersecurity is a vital concern that affects user trust, can expose a company to undue risk, and poses a potential brand threat. It’s also common knowledge that security issues are far less expensive to remedy proactively than reactively, and that properly managing them yields significant business benefits.
Inclusion is business-critical.
All of these traits are true of inclusion, yet very few companies follow the same practices for building a culture of inclusion that they do for building a security culture. It’s not controversial to train everyone in an organization on security best practices, hire outside auditors to evaluate organizational security, or assign key business metrics and explicit objectives toward an overall security goal. But think about whether your team discusses the business risk of a lack of cultural fluency for particular audiences.
We’ve worked to approach inclusion with the same diligence that we have for security, privacy, design, or a host of other business concerns that were once met with skepticism, defensiveness, or dismissal. At the most basic level, we feel that Glitch should have a team that reflects the audience we’re striving to serve. We started by setting simple, verifiable goals around every step of recruitment and retention, from implementing the “Rooney rule” (to ensure representation in the cohort of candidates we consider) to publishing our team’s inclusion statistics (so that everyone can check whether we’re headed in the right direction). From there, we’ve engaged in constant internal process improvements to ensure that we’re getting better at building an inclusive organization, in the same way that we constantly learn about new security practices or design considerations. These methods range from anonymous employee surveys that encourage feedback on company culture to structured internal teams focused on researching ways to make hiring even more inclusive.
Ultimately, this strategy has led to a massive improvement in more proportional representation on our team across nearly every consideration—gender, race, disability, LGBTQ status, and many other vectors of inclusion. Our users and community have explicitly told us that they see the benefits in the platform that we’ve created. As a small team competing in an industry full of giants, those benefits matter.
By being open and uncompromising in bringing business rigor to our inclusion goals, we’ve been able to get started the right way on a hard problem.
We’re just getting started
There’s a common refrain in all these recommendations: They are just a start. Doing the seemingly impossible takes constant iteration. For us at Glitch, it’s like making software—we’re always debugging.
More importantly, at a time when industry leaders are throwing up their hands, complaining that everyone is too demanding, or carping about the work style of millennials, we’ve found that focusing on trust, fairness, and inclusion does wonders. Most of what seems impossible is a result of the constraints that people put on their organizations, not because customers or employees are being unreasonable.
That’s not to say all these changes are easy. They’re hard and they take time, and you won’t get them 100 percent right immediately. But they are possible, and they are well worth the effort.