The hidden costs of quitting your job via viral open letter

Melissa Harris-Perry used the power of the internet to call out MSNBC.
Melissa Harris-Perry used the power of the internet to call out MSNBC.
Image: AP Photo/Invision/Donald Traill
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Of all modern fantasies, there is perhaps none more delicious than the Perfect Quit. You know the one: You stand up, aflame with eloquence, and tell your boss to take this job and shove it with such force and righteousness that the entire company folds out of shame.

Most of us never do this, for obvious reasons (rent, references). So we have to live vicariously through the social folk media heroes who tell their employers to kiss off. We revel in the tale of the flight attendant who cussed out his rude passengers and left the plane through an emergency slide. We celebrate the triumph of the girl forced to work until 4:30 am, dancing out of her empty office for the last time.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a different variation on the theme. Yelp employee Talia Jane and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry each took to social media to protest and publicize unjust working conditions. They didn’t quit their jobs, precisely. But they did choose to go public with the kinds of feelings that they knew were likely to put them out of a job. Their experiences are instructive in highlighting both the promise and the pitfalls of using social media as a tool to challenge employers who take advantage of us.

Of the two, Jane was far less powerful and had much more to lose. A customer service representative at Yelp’s food delivery service Eat24, Jane took to Medium on Feb. 19 to complain about the fact that her minimum-wage job, which paid $8.15 an hour after taxes, did not allow her to actually make a living.

Eat24 is headquartered in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Jane wrote that 80% of her income went to rent. Most of the rest went to transportation, she said, and the money left over wasn’t enough for her to afford to heat her apartment, go to the doctor, or buy groceries.

This is basic labor advocacy. Jane noted that her condition was not unique (she mentioned other co-workers who had actually become homeless) and suggested remedies—namely, cutting out office snacks like coconut water and pistachios and paying employees higher wages instead.

It was a fair request. People have jobs so that they can afford, at a minimum, basic things like food and shelter. A company that doesn’t pay its employees enough for such necessities isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. Unions exist to do exactly what Jane attempted to do in her blog post: Identify common problems caused by unfair conditions and bargain with management to find adequate solutions.

The problem was that Jane didn’t have a union. Instead she struck out on her own, and so a story that was really about unfair labor conditions became a story about her. Yelp fired her. Internet strangers scoured her Instagram account for photographic evidence of her eating something other than rice. (A boyfriend’s gift of cheese and prosciutto instantly became evidence that she was living high on the hog.) Internet writers fired off thinkpieces about #millennials and their entitled attitudes. And in shifting public attention from Yelp’s working conditions to Jane’s character, this narrative successfully managed to suggest that other minimum-wage workers at Eat24 not penning open letters on Medium must be satisfied with their conditions—all while pressuring those workers into silence. Jane serves as a cautionary tale for low-skilled workers who face unfair treatment at the hands of their employers: If you go public about your problems, you’re bound to get burned.

In some respects, Jane belongs to the long tradition of viral Perfect Quiters. The main difference is that we’ve seen her unsatisfactory ending play out in real time. After all, that heroic flight attendant, Steven Slater, was arrested, forced to undergo drug testing and mental health evaluation, and eventually pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal mischief. (The thing about emergency slides is they’re big and heavy. When you release one on a crowded runway with no warning, you can hurt someone.)

Meanwhile, the woman who danced out of her empty office, Marina Shifrin, revealed some time after her video went viral that she did not actually quit via YouTube. She’d already given one month’s notice. She released the viral video after her resignation because, well, she made viral videos for a living. She wasn’t telling her employer to buzz off, just leaving her professional calling card. Her former boss actually congratulated her on its success. And she later penned a blog post counseling her fans, “Don’t quit an epic way”:

“Work at your job as long possible, save up as much money as possible, and apply to as many jobs as possible. Then, when you find a better gig, write a really nice resignation letter and give the appropriate amount of notice.”

We all want to go out in a blaze of glory, but as Shifrin acknowledges, for most of us the costs are too high. In order for the kind of advocacy that Jane was attempting to initiate to actually work, you need real power and resources.

Which is why things turned out somewhat better for Melissa Harris-Perry. Shortly after Jane posted her narrative on Medium, Harris-Perry’s email calling out her employer MSNBC was posted with her permission on the same platform.

“Here is the reality: our show was taken — without comment or discussion or notice — in the midst of an election season,” Harris-Perry wrote, noting that the show had been preempted by network coverage of the campaign season for weeks. “After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced.”

Once again, the complaint was fair. Harris-Perry had offered to host her show from important primary states, and was turned down. When she planned her show around a topic unrelated to the election, like Beyonce’s “Formation” video, election footage was played over the screen while she spoke.

This was all part of MSNBC’s shift away from left-leaning coverage and toward “hard” news. In the process, Harris-Perry, widely acknowledged to be a valuable asset to the network, was basically being prevented from doing her job without the courtesy of negotiation or even formal termination.

Like Jane, Harris-Perry was let go shortly after her story went public, with network executives indulging in some uncomfortably racialized grumbling about her “challenging” personality.

But their letters of protest played very different online, in large part because Harris-Perry analyzes and creates media for a living. This meant she had the tools and professional network to communicate her perspective clearly, and millions of adoring fans who were eager to hear and defend her side of the story. She could go up against her employer because she, unlike Jane, didn’t have to go it alone.

Yet regardless of how effective she was at exposing the injustice of her treatment by MSNBC, she lost her show in the end. She was vindicated but not adequately compensated. And, as with Jane, there’s no indication that her employer is going to reconsider the policies that led to this outcome.

These are not the heartwarming morals that many of us might hope for as we fume in our cubicles, ready to write that one killer post that will start a workers’ revolution. But they do tell us a lot about what social media can do—and what it can’t.

Social media and blogging are good for allowing marginalized and unknown voices to get past cultural gatekeepers. If someone has a strong voice and a compelling truth, they can make themselves heard without needing powerful connections. This makes them extremely valuable for activism.

But they are also mediums that prefer inspiring, shareable stories over messy and unglamorous realities. They privilege the feel-good moment over the long-haul work of creating change.

It is a very good thing that social media empowers people to call attention to mistreatment by their employers in new ways, and to communicate those problems to new global audiences. As with any tool for labor advocacy, this is valuable. But in the end, we won’t make things better by broadcasting our stories to the world. We’ll improve our working conditions by speaking to each other, and by organizing, so that when we stand, no one has to stand alone.