A lost leadership opportunity
Last week, the internet showed it's very real, very ugly side.
You may have heard of Adria Richards, Donglegate, and the tweet that started a firestorm, which ended with her and another person losing their jobs. For those of you that haven't, here's a very high level breakdown:
- At a developer conference, a female developer relationship manager (Adria Richards) who worked for a company called SendGrid overheard two other male conference attendees make a bad joke, in poor taste.
- Rather than confront them directly, or privately ask for support from the conference organizers, she outed them to her social media audience of 14K+ followers.
- One of the male developer's employers, PlayHaven, promptly fired that employee.
- The internet exploded with hateful, misogynist, violent threats against Adria Richards, and DDoS attacks against her employer.
- Her employer, SendGrid, fired her and posted her firing on their social media platforms.
Deep breath. Where to begin?
For a moment, let's put aside the very important, and very real issues of the disparity in the number of women in technology, overt sexism in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) and the abhorrent, vicious response directed at Adria Richards personally, and let's look at the issue of the leadership choices of the two companies involved.
These are both relatively small companies, and reputation counts for a lot, especially for startups. So, it's understandable that they'd want to respond quickly to the matter to mitigate the impact and negative press. How they both responded however, shows us a great deal about the companies themselves.
Here was an opportunity for two young startup companies, deep in the technology fields to strike a pose and lead an entire industry by example. Instead, what they both did was panic.
While I believe PlayHaven's intent was honourable, their actions were reactive and obviously, ultimately harmful; not only of course to the developer whom they fired, but to Adria Richards as well. We as outsiders will not know what else occurred with this employee to cause them to so quickly dismiss him after this incident, so we'll have to assume that this was not a solitary incident. Their posting online however showed respect for the individuals involved, and a commitment to a "civil dialogue". Could they have foreseen the impact that their decision was to have? Not likely. (What's also very telling about the industry as a whole is that Playhaven themselves was not subjected to the same level of harassment as SendGrid was.)
SendGrid's response on the other hand, exposed a glaring lack of leadership, especially when they posted Adria Richard's firing on their Facebook page. They were clearly trying to stave off the DDoS attacks they were experiencing and decided that sacrificing their own employee was worth it. As an partner, an investor, or a customer, you have to wonder do you want to partner, invest in, or do business with a company that has a great product, but seemingly stands for nothing?
The lost opportunity here of course is that there was an opening for both of these companies to bring together the involved parties, and create a thoughtful, inclusive, less reactive dialogue on the issue of women in technology and our collective professional responsibilities, within the industry and at industry events as well. Something that could have been shared, and held up as an example of respectful, thoughtful, and empowering leadership.
Instead, as Amanda Blum very eloquently pointed out, we all lost that day, and we once again learn by example, of how not to lead a company, or an industry.