Is complaining about your colleagues a fireable offense? Netflix says yes

Netflix co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos aspire to build a “culture of transparency.”
Netflix co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos aspire to build a “culture of transparency.”
Image: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Even if you generally like the people you work with, it’s only natural to complain about them. Maybe you have a teammate with a habit of snapping at you when they’re stressed, or the company leadership has embarked on a new strategy that’s doubling your workload. Whatever the scenario, chances are high that you’ll want to vent about bosses and your colleagues sometimes, and when you do, you’ll turn to the people most likely to understand your grievances: Your fellow co-workers.

But in the age of Slack, email, and other electronic communications, there’s always a risk that your words will come back to bite you. That’s what seems to have happened to three senior film-marketing executives at Netflix, who were fired when company leaders got wind of their griping on Slack.

Why did Netflix fire three marketing executives?

The Hollywood Reporter says that the three Netflix executives thought they were exchanging private messages, but another employee discovered “several months’ worth of these messages” and reported them. The publication explains:

According to sources, their immediate boss, vp original films marketing Jonathan Helfgot, whom they also criticized, was extremely reluctant to fire the three for their comments, arguing that employees vent as a matter of course and such dire consequences were not warranted. But sources say he succumbed to pressure from higher-ups at the company.

The story goes on to say that the marketing executives’ messages also criticized chief marketing officer Bozoma St. John. Netflix, however, denies that the Slack messages were critical of St. John or Helfgot. A source familiar with the situation says that the messages were about colleagues rather than company leadership.

There’s a unique aspect to the apparent reasoning behind Netflix’s ousting of the three executives. Sources tell the Hollywood Reporter that the issue wasn’t that the executives complained, but that they didn’t go directly to the people they were complaining about to discuss their issues. Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings has famously cultivated a culture of radical transparency, which instructs employees to “Only say about someone what you will say to their face.” “If you vent [there], you do it very publicly,” one source told the Hollywood Reporter.

Is radical transparency realistic?

Part of Netflix’s reason for emphasizing radical transparency is to ensure that everyone at the company performs at the highest possible level. In Hasting’s corporate memoir No Rules Rules, his co-author Erin Meyer explains, “At Netflix, it is tantamount to being disloyal to the company if you fail to speak up when you disagree with a colleague or have feedback that could be helpful. After all, you could help the business—but you are choosing not to.”

Hastings also writes that whenever a Netflix employee complains about someone else, he asks, “What did that person say when you spoke to him about this directly?” This approach has the effect of mitigating cloak-and-dagger machinations around the office, he says.

But it may be expecting too much from human beings to think that companies can force all beefs out into the open. For one thing, when it comes to criticizing someone who’s above you in the office hierarchy, the power dynamics involved are bound to discourage some employees from speaking up.

Hastings acknowledges the issue in No Rules Rules, writing that “an employee who is courageous enough to give feedback openly is likely to worry, ‘Will my boss hold it against me?’ or ‘Will this harm my career?'” He says the company tries to address that hesitancy by instructing managers to actively solicit feedback from their reports in regular one-on-one meetings, and to use an appreciative tone of voice and thank employees for their candor in the face of criticism.

Those are good notes, but there’s no guarantee that every manager at Netflix (or anywhere else) will live up to them. And despite the company’s best efforts, it’s possible that some employees still won’t feel safe in speaking up.

The pros and cons of office gossip

Venting your frustrations with colleagues is a common way to deal with stress, receive validation, and bond with others. Sure, venting has its downsides—it can even wind up making us feel worse. But it can also be a way for employees to process their emotions. They may express opinions about their colleagues that they don’t necessarily even really believe, or that they’ve deemed too minor to be worth a face-to-face conversation, but which would only grow stronger if they kept them bottled up.

At the same time, it’s easy to see how venting about a colleague can turn toxic. Writing about the function of gossip in a recent opinion column for the New York Times, writer Kelsey McKinney explains that there is “a distinction between negative gossip that alerts the community to an individual’s bad or dangerous behavior and destructive gossip that’s intended to hurt or undermine. “If it becomes malicious,” anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar tells McKinney, “it can actually cause communities to break up into smaller subsets that don’t interact.”

Under this rubric, if a group of co-workers are venting about a colleague who consistently takes credit for other people’s ideas, it can actually be helpful—they’re effectively warning one another to be careful of what they say around the colleague in question, thereby helping to protect one another. If, on the other hand, the co-workers are speculating about whether the colleague is having an affair or complaining about the person’s annoying but fundamentally harmless tics, the venting is no longer serving a productive purpose. It’s just vindictive.

Left unchecked, the latter kind of gossip can lead to a team or an entire workplace overrun by cliques, paranoia, and mean-spiritedness.

When venting crosses a line

The content of the Netflix marketing executives’ gripes is unclear, though a source familiar with the situation says there was nothing racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory in the messages. Without knowing more about the comments or the circumstances that prompted them, it’s hard to have an opinion from the outside about whether the firings were justified.

In general, however, companies should understand that some amount of griping to—and about—co-workers is natural. (Think of beleaguered HR officer Toby Flenderson from the classic NBC sitcom The Office, who handled the bulk of co-workers’ complaints about one another by simply allowing them to vent and then filing the paperwork away in a box, never to be addressed.) But when colleagues are being cruel to one another or spreading rumors, it has to be shut down.

If you find yourself an unwilling participant in a co-worker’s venting session, take a cue from organizational psychology expert Liane Davey and try to channel the conversation toward more constructive routes. “Make it clear that you’re happy to talk about the situation and the underlying emotions,” Davey writes in the Harvard Business Review, “just not about people who aren’t there to defend themselves.”