Nigerian startups with abusive work cultures have been put on notice

How non-toxic is your workplace?
How non-toxic is your workplace?
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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Nigeria’s startup employees are having a #MeToo moment over workplace abuse.

The conversation was sparked by a story published Monday (March 21) by Nigerian news platform TechCabal that detailed allegations of workplace abuse at Bento, attributing the toxic culture at the Lagos-based payroll management startup to CEO Ebun Okubanjo. (Disclosure: A former TechCabal reporter, I read and helped edit a draft of the story shortly before its publication.)

The account of insane work hours, harsh criticism, and sudden firings touched such a nerve that a Twitter Space on the topic lasted nearly eight hours, spilling into Tuesday morning with over 91,000 listeners having joined and many reporting issues of abuse they faced at their own jobs.

Even Netflix jumped into the conversation, tweeting that “Horrible Bosses 1 and 2 are now streaming sha.”

Bento CEO under fire for creating a hostile environment

Relying on accounts from mostly anonymous former employees, TechCabal portrayed a CEO who wielded absolute power in bruising ways. Okunbajo had declined to comment to TechCabal for the story but in an emailed response to Quartz, he said it’s “fair to say we drove a hard charging culture that isn’t for everyone but it also went too far. We are aware of the need for change and that work is going on, [and] the details will be announced later.”

“The day I met him for my interview, he told me he could read poverty all over my face,” one former employee said. Others referred to episodes of Okubanjo guilt-tripping employees who requested to take vacation time, body shaming plus-size staff, firing without notice, and temper tantrums.

More people came forward on Twitter with scarring experiences with Okubanjo, as well as about bosses at other companies, from unknown startups and NGOs, to multinational corporations. Beyond workplace abuse, there were complaints of job offers dubiously rescinded, including in one case allegedly after a prospective hire had been requested to resign from their existing job.

The outrage suggests a massive gap in addressing labor issues in Nigeria, and that the startup scene is failing to disrupt this status quo.

Workplace abuse thrives on Nigeria’s high unemployment 

Okubanjo’s alleged reference to a prospective employee’s poverty suggests how abuse thrives at Nigerian workplaces.

Jobs are in short supply in Nigeria with unemployment at 33%, a gap that has worsened over the last decade. A globalized workforce gives African tech talent access to overseas jobs, but these are often roles requiring more experience. In many instances, people in the early stages of their careers need to start at companies close to home.

For many, home has failed to provide the kind of professional development that doesn’t come with mental health scars. But after years of silence, the mass outpouring in response to a detailed account of workplace abuse shows employees may be ready to put horrible bosses on alert.

Whether it will lead to change remains unclear. There is a view that CEOs who have more name recognition than Okubanjo may not get exposed. To the ire of many, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, the well known former co-founder of tech talent placement company Andela, said that founders should keep their heads up because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were also deemed toxic bosses, and that “raising the bar on hiring” is a solution.

Still, Monday evening felt momentous, and the stories will continue to flow.

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