Once in a while, there is an article that seems strangely satisfying at first (in a self-justifying sort of way), yet strangely unsettling. This is a rebuttal to one of the articles: "I Work, I Swear". You should read it first before continuing.
Read it? No? Alright, fine, here are two excerpts from it.
One day in a staff meeting in the Loudcloud/Opsware days, someone brought up an issue that had been bothering him for some time. “This place is entirely too profane. It’s making many of the employees uncomfortable.” Others chimed in: “It makes the environment unprofessional. We need to put a stop to it.” Although the complaints were abstract, they were clearly directed at me since I was the biggest abuser of profanity in the company and perhaps in the industry. In those days, I directed the team with such urgency that it was rare for me to say more than a few sentences without an expletive injected somewhere.
After much consideration, I realized that the best technology companies of the day, Intel and Microsoft, were known to be highly profane places, so we’d be off culture with them and the rest of the modern industry if we stopped profanity. Obviously, that didn’t mean that we had to encourage it, but prohibiting it seemed both unrealistic and counterproductive.I was very uncomfortable with both the outcome and the attitude of the article. Don't get me wrong, I swear at work too from time to time (especially at Spark). There's a difference, though, between swearing and swearing so excessively that it makes people around you uncomfortable.
After some thought, I realize that there are two main reasons why this article was so cringe-worthy.
The lack of personal responsibility
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -- Mahatma Gandhi
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." -- Leo TolstoyThe author admits that although seemingly abstract, he realizes that most of the complaints were really targeted at himself. Yet he does not use this insight to resolve the problem. He frames the problem as one about company policy, and argues,
As I see it, we have two choices: (a) we can ban profanity or (b) we can accept profanity. Anything in between is very unlikely to work.On its own, this is both a false dichotomy and a straw man. It is a false dichotomy because there are middle grounds: even the author finds a third option. It is a straw man because the complaints were about excessive swearing, and (more importantly) they were not about company policy. There are ways to make employees more comfortable without making a grand announcement about a sweeping change across the entire organization.
Just look at how hard the author tries to re-frame the problem. First, it became an issue of company policy. Then, it became an issue of culture. And somehow, it ended up as an issue of how profanity is used, not the fact that it is used too much, too often. All these issues were dragged in just so that the author could avoid personal responsibility.
The propagation of the status-quo
The specific argument about culture was especially disconcerting, even on its own. Specifically, let's look at these statements carefully:
If we outlawed profanity, then some employees who used it would not come to work for us or quit once they got there because we would seem old-fashioned and prudish.
If we kept profanity, some people might leave.
After much consideration, I realized that the best technology companies of the day, Intel and Microsoft, were known to be highly profane places, so we’d be off culture with them and the rest of the modern industry if we stopped profanity.
Attracting the very best engineers meant recruiting from highly profane environments. The choice was between optimizing for top talent or clean culture. Easy decision.Let's assume, for the time being, that the dichotomy from above (no swearing vs. all the swearing) was true. What are some of the underlying assumptions here?
- That top talent only come from other highly profane places
- That people coming from these highly profane places liked it
- That non-usage of profanity is a definitive signal of old-fashioned-ness and prudishness.
- That people who leave because of excessive profanity are not top talent
- That these hypothetical effects of banning profanity will outweigh the reality of employees already being uncomfortable enough to complain
More troubling is that in his argument, you can pretty much replace "swearing" with anything else that marginalizes a particular group. Replace "swearing" with "brogrammer culture", and see what happens:
If we outlawed "brogrammer culture", then some employees who used it would not come to work for us or quit once they got there because we would seem old-fashioned and prudish.
If we kept the "brogrammer culture", some people might leave.
After much consideration, I realized that the best technology companies of the day, Intel and Microsoft, were known to be highly "brogrammer" places, so we’d be off culture with them and the rest of the modern industry if we stopped "brogrammers".
Attracting the very best engineers meant recruiting from highly "brogrammer" environments. The choice was between optimizing for top talent or clean culture. Easy decision.The point is, this entire argument about culture is flawed and only serves to propagate the status quo. Instead of mimicking the existing culture, perhaps it will make more sense to analyze the behaviours in question and do a real cost/benefit analysis. Then, you may even find top talent elsewhere, and your unique culture may actually prevent them from switching fields.
It is not so much the topic of the discourse that bothered me, nor even the conclusion. Rather, it is the process in which the author reached the conclusion, and what such self-serving thought processes can do to the world of tech.
In all fairness, complaints like this are difficult to deal with. Often the solution is simple, yet following through with the simple solution might be the hardest thing in the world.
I hesitated in writing this because the author is such a prominent figure in my world. He had obviously done so many things right. Perhaps there were other factors that he did not include in the discussion. Perhaps there are other thoughts that went into his decision.