There are no shortcuts to building a good workplace culture. BrewDog is the latest ‘name’ brand to hit national news headlines for the worst of reasons: former staff coming together to ‘expose’ what they claim is a toxic culture of fear, bullying, and lies.
BrewDog is an example of a very 21st-century enterprise. It’s put a great deal of effort into marketing its smart employer brand, based on a vision to be “the best company to work for…ever”: an ethical, fun firm to be associated with. BrewDog has often been feted in HR press as a model of wellbeing practices with innovations like offering ‘pawternity leave’ for employees to settle in their new rescue pets or puppies.
But a letter posted on Twitter by more than 50 former employees has questioned the nature of actual employee experiences behind the company’s image. The main complaints focused around BrewDog’s senior team of “inflated egos” who, they said, had created a cult of personality. Business growth – not ethical practice, wellbeing, or even safety standards – was the only priority. Staff were being pressured to work beyond their capacity, sometimes leading to cases of mental illness.
“Put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear,” said the letter. “Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we left.”
How many ‘BrewDogs’ are there? Building an image is relatively easy. Making sure your workplace is a good place to be really isn’t. As a minimum, people need to be able to trust the leadership, that they have the best intentions and are trying to make sure the rhetoric is backed up by practice.
Serious damage to the reputation of the ‘cool’ BrewDog brand could have been avoided, by listening to employees; having senior managers willing to both listen and show empathy; and being able to respond to early signs of problems with open conversations about concerns and ways forward. As it turned out, no one appeared to have had the confidence or sense of psychological safety to speak with a line manager.
BrewDog’s CEO, James Watt has pledged to set up an employee representative group to “ensure employees have a clear voice” and run anonymous staff surveys. That’s all fine – if staff have the courage to speak honestly. And if they do, what happens if all BrewDog’s management find is a stream of grievances and negativity? What do they do next?
Saying you’re going to listen now there’s been a problem isn’t enough. HR need to be thinking about what makes for a ‘clear air’ culture: where people at all levels have the skills to deal with everyday clashes and difficult situations, they have what we call ‘Conversational Integrity’, a combination of empathy, self-awareness and all-round nous.
Employees also have to believe in the systems that are in place for when things go wrong, know they can trust the mediation service and the trained internal staff or external professionals brought in; and in the last resort, that investigations will be carried out to the highest standards.
It’s in this clear air context that organisations see and feel the return of a culture of openness and honesty and all the benefits of engagement, motivation and goodwill that come with it.