Bad Culture: Signals Are Tough to Ignore

January 18, 2022

I have worked in a number of interesting jobs and on fascinating projects for more than 50 years. I have some time perspective. My first “real” consulting job was an analysis of the content in a number of magazines for a large New York publishing outfit. The person who supervised my work was the individual who coined the phrase “Photomat. Where your photo matters.” My recollection is that he was interested in the results, and he was up front about what he wanted to learn from the investigation. As I recall, he said, “I want to know how to increase renewals.”

That made zero sense to me because text analysis in 1970 had little to do with the real world. Indexing Latin and cranking out concordances, yes. But subscription renewal? I was clueless, but I did the work and reported results which made this big wheel spin with joy. I liked the person and I liked the company. As it turned out, I did consulting work for one of the other senior managers for over 45 years.

This early experience is different from what is described in “Young People Are Leaving Tech Because of Bad Culture.” This article explains:

Talent and skills provider Mthree found 59% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 said the company culture in their tech-based role made them so uncomfortable they had quit or at least thought about quitting. When it came to those from under-represented groups in UK tech, these figures were higher, with 64% of female respondents, 67% of those from a mixed-race background and 68% of young people who are bisexual saying they had either left or considered leaving a role because of a company’s culture.

Quite a contrast. I had a positive first consulting experience.

I think the issue with work today is broader than the technology sector in which I have worked for many years. Earlier in my career, I worked for a blue chip consulting firm and I have done projects for other big time blue chip outfits. I have avoided, for the most part, the mid tier operations. These struck me (perhaps incorrectly) as lacking the rigor associated with the blue chip outfits.

McKinsey’s Leader Wants to Change the Firm” includes this statement:

McKinsey’s reputation also faced challenges. In February, the company said it had reached a $573 million settlement over its previous work advising OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and other drug manufacturers to aggressively market opioid painkillers. McKinsey admitted no wrongdoing. The firm also drew scrutiny in recent years for its work with some foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia. [Emphasis added]

The idea that the downstream consequences of casual algorithmic tuning at Facebook-type companies and logic-driven business advice linked to drug addiction suggests a deeper issue. Is it the culture of the go go, Wolf of Wall Street thought processes or are these specific, observable symptoms of an ethical cancer? Are individuals operating flash mob snatch and run robberies unhappy with job opportunities or are these behaviors a loss of a strong social fabric?

Either way, people are making decisions which appear to be harmful to others. The impact of these types of behaviors are likely to accelerate the loss of technology and behavioral influence the US possessed when I began my work career half a century ago.

Change has been a long time coming, and I don’t think “speeding up decision making, rethinking performance evaluations, and avoiding future scandals” is going to retain tech talent or address certain behaviors that are genuinely harmful to others.

Stephen E Arnold, January 18, 2022


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