The Dark Side of Digital

15 July 2015 -


The digital era has brought us many disruptive startups and creative pioneers, but while we know the benefits these businesses can bring, what goes on behind the doors of Silicon Valley, and are management failings beginning to emerge?

Jermaine Haughton

Apple, Google, Facebook and others have brought us many technological marvels over the past decade. As well as to listening to music on our phone and connecting with family and friends from almost anywhere, we now have phenomenal processing and information-gathering power at our fingertips.

But is there a darker, more costly side for workers in the digital revolution?

The resignation of web aggregator Reddit’s interim chief executive Ellen Pao following the public sacking of an employee popular with users appears to be the latest example of the pressures on managers to drive growth for an increasingly demanding customer base and ownership.

Ranked as the 10th most trafficked website in the US with 164 million users, Reddit is unique as, unlike other former tech startups such as Facebook, it’s heavily self-moderated (and arguably controlled) by its most dedicated users.

Pao quit the company after she became embroiled in a major dispute regarding the firing of Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of talent and an AMA (Ask Me Anything) facilitator. That dismissal irked many Reddit moderators, and in protest they shut down more than 1,800 subreddits, virtually disabling the website.

In the New York Times, Brian Lynch and Courtnie Swearingen, two Reddit moderators, argued that: “Ms Taylor’s sudden termination is just the most recent example of management’s making changes without thinking through what those changes might mean for the people who use the site on a daily basis.”

Even though some insiders pointed to co-founder and chairman Alexis Ohanian as the orchestrator of the firing, Pao was unable to distance herself from the furore, even after apologising, and was forced to succumb to the pressure of the role. (Source)  

It’s not the first – and won’t be the last – example of a harsh, relentless, even brutal management style within digital companies where young, inexperienced business leaders must deliver extreme, often investor-driven, objectives. These are companies racing to get to the future first, and nothing and nobody must get in the way. Here are five other tales of the dark side of digital management.

1. Amazon’s ‘slave camp’ conditions

Describing the online retail giant’s warehouse operations as having “slave camp” conditions, a 2013 investigation by the BBC criticised Amazon’s management of its staff.

Placing undercover reporter Adam Littler in Amazon's Swansea warehouse as a "picker", the BBC probe revealed staff were required to work under "unbelievable" working conditions, which included walking 11 miles during a shift and collecting orders every 33 seconds.

Stress expert Professor Michael Marmot said: "With the characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness. There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse and, it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual's health and wellbeing have got to be balanced."


2. AOL – a very public firing

In a conference call including 1,000 AOL employees, boss Tim Armstrong infamously fired creative director Abel Lenz for attempting to record the meeting. Ironically, an audio recording of the meeting picked up Armstrong shouting: “Abel, put that camera down right now. Abel, you're fired.”

Days later Armstrong apologised for the incident, explaining in an email to staff that it was merely an 'emotional response' to a difficult situation, and that he had warned all staff to not record the meeting, as he wanted an 'open discussion' about cutbacks at the tech company.


3. Yahoo’s office move

Boss Marissa Mayer angered many of her remote staff, especially parents working at the tech company, when she banned Yahoo staff from working from home in 2013. Despite claiming that the decision would increase productivity and a more connected company culture, many Yahoo employees voiced their disagreement with Mayer’s ultimatum to return to the office or leave the company.

The tech industry has earned a reputation as being unwelcoming to workers with young families and children, and critics saw flexible working as an important tool for time-crunched workers with dependents to  juggle work and family responsibilities better.

Only a few months later, Mayer seemed to accept she may have underestimated the negative effect of the policy on parents by introducing greater benefits such as extended parental leave to help attract the best staff.


4. Apple’s two-tier workforce

Protests over the two-tier workforce at Apple came to the fore last year, as more than 100 protesters stormed Apple's Cupertino campus in California to campaign for better working conditions and pay for contracted blue-collar workers.

Contract workers in labour-intensive roles such as food service and security are used across Silicon Valley due to lower costs, however, an overreliance on these services has led to claims that many tech companies are operating a two-tier system, and should treat contractors similarly to full time employees.

Compared to the six-figure salaries senior engineers receive, Apple's security guard contractor Security Industry Specialists, for example, pay employees $19.77 (£12.70) per hour, not including benefits, which campaigners say is not enough to offset the high cost of living in California. (Source 1) (Source 2)

5. Uber – you’re fired, but we’re not telling you why

Uber’s aggressiveness has also received its fair share of criticism for its handling of drivers. Some of the taxi app company’s former drivers have condemned the firm for firing its drivers at will and with no clear policy.

Although drivers work for Uber as independent contractors, they claim the company can leave drivers stranded without a source of income and that Uber fails to provide a defined code of conduct of what behaviour could lead to termination.

And the company itself doesn’t seem totally certain.

Despite denying claims that drivers are fired for criticising the company online, Albuquerque-area driver Chris Ortiz says he was released for “hateful statements regarding Uber on social media”. But after posting online about why he was ditched, Uber rehired him and called the move “an error by the local team”.


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