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Friday, September 24, 2021

Culture change and conflict at Twitter

The conflicts at Twitter have been echoed at other tech companies where executives are taking a harder line with employees who had grown accustomed to accommodating workplaces.

By: New York Times |
Updated: August 17, 2021 9:48:55 am
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Written by Kate Conger

Soon after joining Twitter in 2019, Dantley Davis gathered his staff in a conference room at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Twitter was too nice, he told the group, and he was there to change it.

Davis, the company’s new vice president of design, asked employees to go around the room, complimenting and critiquing one another. Tough criticism would help Twitter improve, he said. The barbs soon flew. Several attendees cried during the two-hour meeting, said three people who were there.

Davis, 43, has played a key role in a behind-the-scenes effort over the past two years to remake Twitter’s culture. The company had long been slow to build products, and under pressure from investors and users, executives landed on a diagnosis: Twitter’s collaborative environment had calcified, making workers reluctant to criticize one another. Davis, the company believed, was one of the answers to that problem.

The turmoil that followed revealed the trade-offs and conflicts that arise when companies attempt dramatic cultural shifts and put the onus on hard-nosed managers to make that change happen.

Davis repeatedly clashed with employees because of his blunt style. His treatment of workers was also the subject of several investigations by Twitter’s employee relations department, and of complaints to Jack Dorsey, the CEO, that too many people were leaving.

Company officials acknowledge that Davis may have gone too far at times, and he has promised to tone down the way he criticizes people. But they make no apologies and have even given him a more senior job title. Employee dissatisfaction, they said, is sometimes the cost of shaking things up.

“This is actually a Twitter culture change that we’ve been trying to drive,” said Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of human resources.

A former Facebook and Netflix executive, Davis, who is now the company’s chief design officer, reports directly to Dorsey. When hired, he was told to revamp Twitter’s design team and make it more diverse. His work was considered a model for other Twitter executives, and the company believes the diversity of his department improved under his leadership. Twitter reports its diversity statistics annually but does not break out numbers for specific parts of the company.

“This was a turnaround role, and that meant changes to staff, changes to our work, changes to how we collaborate,” Davis said recently.

He frequently spoke with his staff about challenges he faced as a Black and Korean man in the technology industry, and won accolades for his design work. He spearheaded forays into new media, like audio tweets and chats, and championed efforts to clean up the conversation on Twitter, including prompts that encourage people to read articles before sharing them.

But Davis’ management style was a bracing shift for employees at Twitter, which has not usually offered the astronomical salaries that are normal at other social media outfits. Instead, the company has tried to attract workers with a welcoming culture typified in a hashtag, #LoveWhereYouWork. Fourteen current and former Twitter employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly, spoke with unusual candor to The New York Times about the past two years working with Davis and the changes he brought to their workplace.

As Twitter executives have driven toward a feistier version of their company, tension has not been limited to the design department and its adjoining research group. Workers have complained, sometimes bitterly, about being demoralized.

“We’ve got teams across the board that are reporting things like, ‘We’re concerned about our future,’ ” Christie said. “They talk about fear or psychological unsafety.”

The conflicts at Twitter have been echoed at other tech companies where executives are taking a harder line with employees who had grown accustomed to accommodating workplaces. Coinbase, a cryptocurrency company that went public this year, banned political discussions at work and offered exit packages to employees who disagreed with the rule. And this month, Google faces a trial before an administrative law judge after the National Labor Relations Board accused it of wrongfully firing employees who protested company decisions.

“Any kind of major change in blueprint comes with a risk,” said Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University.

Cultural shifts rile employees and sometimes cause financial instability, he said. “There is always this balance between: Do we do it by socialization and having a strong culture, or do we do it with money and cracking down on people?”

Although some Twitter design employees were rattled by the meeting in which they were required to critique one another, Davis said several had thanked him for the candid feedback.

“We’re kind to one another,” he said. “But also being nice means that you might shy away from saying the thing that needs to be said for us to move forward together.”

Davis told his staff that he would push for improved performance, and he quickly criticized, demoted or cut workers, more than a dozen workers said. When employees were let go, he and other managers sometimes followed their departures with emails to the staff remarking on their poor work.

Many employees feared they would be next on the chopping block. Although Davis, who manages 200 people, stressed the importance of giving critical feedback, he sometimes lashed out at workers who criticized him, employees said.

But others believed Davis’ changes were essential to Twitter’s survival. The company needed to toughen up, one employee said. By late 2019, complaints surfaced to Twitter’s employee relations unit, which is staffed by lawyers who investigate workplace issues. The unit looked into accusations that Davis had created a culture of fear. Among the concerns was that he had made a biased remark to another executive.

The comment occurred during a meeting in which Liz Ferrall-Nunge, who led Twitter’s research team, shared concerns about diversity at Twitter and referred to her experience as a woman of colour. Davis seemed to dismiss her, telling Ferrall-Nunge, who is Asian American, that if she wore sunglasses, she would pass as white, three people familiar with the investigation said.

Ferrall-Nunge, who left Twitter in 2020, declined to comment. After this article was published, a spokeswoman for Twitter said the company did not have a record of complaints about the incident being made to employee relations.

Twitter employees who were aware of the episode said they expected better from Davis because of his outspokenness about diversity. Others defended his track record on diversity, noting that white executives were given more slack while making less effort on diversity issues.

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