Should employers care what employees think?

Posted On April 17, 2016

I’ve written in recent months about the wisdom in moving slowly when modernizing a workplace with millennial touches, if one doesn’t want to alienate Generation X workers.

One Gen-Xer’s experience, however, has been that some employers could care less about turning off employees.

Dan Lyons went to work for a start-up software firm after being laid off from a 25-year journalism career and, as he noted in a recent piece in the New York Times, found a “surreal, and cruel” culture that chewed up and spit out employees, simply replacing them with fresh crops of new recruits.

Lyons initially found the idea of working for a start-up intriguing, but quickly found the workplace stifling, even as his managers pumped up their employees as “rock stars” who were “changing the world.”

“It turned out I’d joined a digital sweatshop, where people were packed into huge rooms, side by side, at long tables,” Lyons wrote. “Instead of hunching over sewing machines, they stared into laptops or barked into headsets, selling software.”

The company for which Lyons worked for two years, HubSpot, operates under a “culture code” that is written with a millennial bent. In juxtaposing how people have supposedly changed in the way they work, pensions are traded for “purpose,” an office for “wherever” and a career for “whatever.” It differentiates itself from companies are “frozen in time,” punctuating its theme with a photo of smiling millennials wearing party hats and masks.

This model follows those of successful tech businesses such as Amazon and Netflix, companies that pride themselves in hypercompetitive cultures. A New York Times expose found that Amazon employees are expected to mercilessly rip apart their co-workers’ ideas and, in some cases, performance, and firings are frequent in what one former HR director called “purposeful Darwinism.”

Meanwhile, Netflix’s “organizational culture” identifies the company as “like a pro sports team” that has “stars at every position,” touting the importance of “attracting and retaining stunning colleagues” but then holding them to a standard under which “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.”

Instead of party time, Lyons found HubSpot to be a place where an admitted maniacal commitment to metrics leaves employees scrambling to make arbitrarily set numbers, and where they can be fired without explanation while co-workers are invited to congratulate them on their “graduation.”

It is possible that experiences like that of Lyons could be the result of poorly trained or ill-tempered managers more than systemic organizational culture. It is possible that many stories such as these are being told by disgruntled employees cast aside with just cause. But the weight of the anecdotal evidence and the wording of such firms’ own mission statements seem to confirm that in a laser-sharp focus on customer satisfaction and profits, employees have become mere commodities, to be discarded if found operating at anything less than peak performance and replaced by newer models.

These are admittedly a small sample of companies in one highly competitive industry. But they raise a question that’s intrinsic to the millennial workplace: Does retention matter? Are competitive, or even generous, salaries enough to offset a hypercompetitive culture that values high employee output but not the employees themselves? Should employers care what current employees think or simply position themselves to attract the next crop of workers?

The answers will depend on your business model, the demands of your industry and your own personal beliefs. They will also go a long way toward defining what a “millennial workplace” really looks like.

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Generation Y / Millennials, Work, Workplace