Reflection and value

I heard a fairly ubiquitous commercial on the radio this morning, from a company I think we probably all know, hawking insurance. These commercials always give me an unpleasant twist, because I know that this company doesn’t particularly value their employees as humans (a friend and family member works there). This commercial was specifically talking about how terrific their service was – which is obviously a core value proposition for an insurance company – and how their people make that happen. The implication I get from these commercials is like some verdant, gorgeous workscape where each employee is cherished and works hard because they are passionate about helping each user, and the company in turn takes care of those employees and nurtures that relationship with them as they do with clients.

Except, of course, that is not the case. I happen to know that is is an extremely difficult and trying workplace. That taking time off because you are ill or your child is ill counts against you when they determine who gets a raise. That even the employees who care deeply about helping each client feel rundown and like they’re constantly chasing numbers and quotas, rather than helping each client because it’s the right thing to do.

That’s why the commercials always give me that sickly jolt – the company is very specifically showing itself in one light, while treating its own employees in a vastly different way. The reflection isn’t true. The value is skewed, deliberately.

I contrast that to the way Automattic works. Here, every employee is highly valued – just as much as a user (well, we are all users!). We don’t impose a mission on new employees; future employees find us because of our shared mission to make the web a better place. Our employees care about Open Source, about a free web, and truly democratizing publishing (read more here). I think that Automattic in particular does an excellent job of providing a true reflection within and without. The care that users get is reflected inward to employees; the responsibility that is entrusted to employees is reflected back to users. Everyone is empowered. Democratizing publishing isn’t about forcing employees to work until their spirits are broken. It’s about caring so much that you are fair, equal, and honest in all your interactions (it shouldn’t be revolutionary…) You can’t turn it off.

I’ve worked here for more than three years now, and I have gradually moved from being shocked that the company trusts each employee so much and so deeply, and treats us all as adults, to wondering – actively wondering – why this isn’t the norm everywhere. After a lot of thinking, I think it’s because employers don’t care (what they’re doing is “working”, so changing it would be too disruptive), or they think that behaving this way is a luxury. It is a luxury! In the sense that – for me – working is enjoyable, it’s something I love getting to do every day, so I work hard. It’s something that’s above and beyond – it’s not an entry-level, soul-sucking job (which I have had); it’s an extra layer on top of a the basic necessity of working. I do think it helps that we are not a public company, but if we were, I’d fully expect this sort of accurate reflection and value to continue.

The way Automattic treats its employees is not unrealistic, nor is it unrealistic to expect more companies to behave this way. I think that more people will need to advocate, both for themselves and for their co-workers, and more people need to feel empowered to stop doing what has always been done and take a step towards a braver, newer, better world.

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