In April, Medium CEO Ev Williams wrote a memo to his staff about the company’s shifting culture in the wake of a challenging year.
“A healthy culture brings out the best in people,” he wrote. “They feel psychologically safe voicing their ideas and engaging in debate to find the best answer to any question — knowing that their coworkers are assuming good intent and giving them the benefit of the doubt because they give that in return."
A few paragraphs later, Williams wrote that while counterperspectives and unpopular opinions are “always encouraged” to help make decisions, “repeated interactions that are nonconstructive, cast doubt, assume bad intent, make unsubstantiated accusations, or otherwise do not contribute to a positive environment have a massive negative impact on the team and working environment.”
He added: “These behaviors are not tolerated.”
The internal memo, obtained and verified by TechCrunch, was published nearly one month after Medium staff’s unionization attempt failed to pass, and roughly one week after Williams announced a pivot of the company's editorial ambitions to focus less on in-house content and more on user-generated work.
Medium’s editorial team got voluntary payouts as part of the shift, with VP of Editorial Siobhan O’Connor and the entire staff of GEN Magazine stepping away.
However, several current and former employees told TechCrunch that they believe Medium’s mass exodus is tied more to Williams’ manifesto, dubbed "the culture memo," than a pivot in editorial focus. Since the memo was published, many non-editorial staffers — who would presumably not be impacted by a shift in content priorities — have left the company, including product managers, several designers and dozens of engineers.
The future of gig work could involve unions and co-ops
Those departing allege that Williams is trying to perform yet another reset of company strategy, at the cost of its most diverse talent. One pull of internal data that includes engineers, editorial staff, the product team, and a portion of its HR and finance team, suggests that, of the 241 people who started the year at Medium, some 50% of that pool are now gone. Medium, which has hired employees to fill some vacancies, denied these metrics, stating that it currently has 179 employees.
Medium said that 52% of departures were white, and that one third of the company is non-white and non-Asian. The first engineer that TechCrunch spoke to said that minorities are overrepresented in the departures at the company. They also added that, when they joined Medium, there were three transgender engineers. All have since left.
"A beloved dictator vibe"
In February, a number of Medium employees — led by the editorial staff — announced plans to organize into a union. The unionization effort was eventually defeated after falling short by one vote, a shortfall that some employees think was due to Medium executives pressuring staff to vote against the union.
The month after the unionization effort failed, Medium announced an editorial pivot. The company offered new positions or voluntary payouts for editorial staff. A number of employees left, which is not uncommon in the aftermath of a tense time period such as a failed unionization and the offer of a clear, financially safe route out.
In April, Williams posted the culture memo outlining his view on the company’s purpose and operating principles. In the memo, he writes that “there is no growth without risk-taking and no risk-taking without occasional failure” and that “feedback is a gift, and even tough feedback can and should be delivered with empathy and grace.” The CEO also noted the company's commitment to diversity, and how adapting to “opportunities or threats is a prerequisite for winning.”
Notably, Medium has gone through a number of editorial strategy changes, dipping in and out of subscriptions, in-house content, and now, leaning on user-generated content and paid commissions.
“Team changes, strategy changes and reorganizations are inevitable. Each person’s adaptivity is a core strength of the company,” the memo reads.
The memo doesn’t explicitly address the unionization attempt, but does talk about how Medium will not tolerate “repeated interactions that are nonconstructive, cast doubt, assume bad intent, make unsubstantiated accusations, or otherwise do not contribute to a positive environment [but] have a massive negative impact on the team and working environment.”
Employees that we spoke to think that Williams’ memo, while internal rather than publicly posted, is reminiscent of statements put out by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, which both banned political discussion at work due to its incendiary or "distracting" nature. While the Medium memo doesn’t wholly ban politics, the first engineer said that the “undertone” of the statement creates a “not safe work environment.” Frustrated employees created a side-Slack to talk about issues at Medium.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Medium said that "many employees said they appreciated the clarity and there were directors and managers involved in shaping it."
The month of the memo, churn tripled at the company compared to the month prior and was 30 times higher than the January metric, using an internal data set obtained by TechCrunch.
The second engineer that spoke to TechCrunch left the company last month and said that the memo didn’t have anything “egregious” at first glance.
“It was more of a beloved dictator vibe, of like, your words are vague enough that they’re not enforceable on anything else, and it looks good on paper,” they said. “If you just saw that memo and nothing else, it’s not a Coinbase memo, it’s not a Basecamp memo.”
But, given the timing of the memo, the engineer said their interpretation of Williams’ message was clear.
"[Medium wants] to enforce good vibes and shut down anything that is questioning 'the mission,'” they said.
The same engineer thinks that “very few people left because of the editorial pivot.” Instead, the engineer explained a history of problematic issues at Medium, with a wave of departures that seem to be clearly triggered by the memo.
In July 2019, for example, Medium chose to publish a series that included a profile of Trump supporter Joy Villa with the headline “I have never been as prosecuted for being Black or Latina as I have been for supporting Trump.”
When the Latinx community at Medium spoke to leadership about discomfort in the headline, they claimed that executives from editorial didn’t do anything about the headline until it was mentioned in a public Slack channel. One editor asked anyone who had gone through the immigration process or was a part of the Latinx community to get in a room and explain their side, a moment that felt diminishing to this employee. The headline only changed when employees posted in a public Slack channel about their qualms.
“They think caring is enough,” the employee said. “And that listening is merciful and really caring, and therefore they’re really shocked when that is not enough.”
The third engineer who spoke to TechCrunch joined the company in 2019 because they were looking for a mission-driven company impacting more than just tech. They realized Medium had “deeper issues” during the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
“There were deeper issues that I just hadn't heard about because I wasn't part of them. That just kind of got slid under the rug,” they said, such as the Trump supporter profile. The former employee explained how they learned that HR had ignored a report of an employee saying the N-word during that time, too. Medium said this is false.
“I don't feel like I needed the memo to really understand their true colors,” they said.
After The Verge and Platformer published a report on Medium’s messy culture and chaotic editorial strategy, the second engineer said that multiple employees who were assumed to be tied to the story were pressured to resign.
“The way I see it, they fought dirty to defeat the union,” the first engineer said. “But it wasn't a total success because all of these people have decided to leave in the wake of the decision, and that's the cost. The people who are left basically feel like they have to nod and smile because Medium has made it clear that they don’t want you to bring your full self to work.”
The engineer said that Medium’s culture of reckoning is different from Coinbase because of the mission-oriented promise of the former.
“Some companies, like Coinbase, have said that ‘we want people who are not going to bring politics and social issues to work,’ so if you join Coinbase, that’s what you are expecting, and that’s fine,” they said. “But Medium specifically recruited people who care about the world, and justice, and believe in the freedom of speech and transparency.”
The engineer plans to officially resign soon and already has interviews lined up.
“It’s a good job market out there for software engineers, so why would I work for a company that is treating their own people unfairly?”
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