Get a little mad: the real lesson to be learned from Yelp firing a hungry, underpaid worker

Posted by gminks in information factories | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about Talia Jane. She’s the young woman who couldn’t afford to buy groceries, turn on her heat, or even get to work even though she has a college degree and a job at a successful online services company. She was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore, so she wrote an open letter to her CEO that was posted to Medium.

freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

Of course she got fired. Her CEO Jerry Stoppleman seems to care about the plight the homeless in San Francisco. Stoppleman said Talia was not fired because of her letter. In fact he agreed with her about the high cost of living.

Talia said she found out she was fired because she lost access to her corporate email account, then got a phone call from her boss and an HR representative telling her she was being let go because the post she wrote broke the organization’s code of conduct.

Now her former employer (via PR apparently) is refusing to talk about the reason for her dismissal. However it’s interesting that their official comment to Business Journal seems to support this employee’s spunk:

We do not comment on personnel issues. However, we did agree with many of the points in Ms. Jane’s post and we viewed it as her real, personal narrative about what it’s like to live in the Bay Area. Most importantly, it’s an important example of freedom of speech.

We agree with her comments about the high costs of living in San Francisco, which is why we announced in December that we are expanding our Eat24 customer support team into our Phoenix office where will pay the same wage.

So in review:

  • Young woman tries unsuccessfully to get a higher wage going through proper channels (quarterly reviews)
  • She is hungry and angry, and uses a blog post to skip level to the CEO, who appears to be passionate about homelessness.
  • She is fired for writing the post because it breaks the company’s code of contact, and used her tools to be honest and open and defend herself.
  • The company’s official stance is that her post was real, a shining example of free speech, and now they are free to feel no guilt about moving all those jobs to a cheaper labor market.

I knew I had to write something when I saw Dan Pontefract‘s article about this on Forbes. I know Dan, he has an amazing book called Flat Army and a new one coming soon, all about leveling command and control hierarchies in organizations so that work can actually get done. I think his purpose with the Forbes article was to give both sides of this coin even play. However, I don’t think some of the things he implied with his tone were fair to this young woman. And I honestly think this is an outstanding example of the things he fights against.

The thing that made Talia snap was hunger. She fell asleep hungry, and was so hungry she felt she couldn’t wait for her rice to cook. Have you ever been that hungry? I have. It will drive you to get what you need. I’m proud of this lady for reaching out and making her plight known. She absolutely flattened the hierarchy, after trying to resolve it for several quarters with her managers. She went straight to the top, to someone who speaks often about the plight of the homeless in San Francisco, using communications vehicles that the CEO could not ignore: a very public blogging site and Twitter.

I hope that if any of you get to the point that you are this hungry, you let someone know. You know where to find me.

I have children who are the same age as Talia, and I work with lots of young people in this age range.

it is REALLY hard not to say kids, I hope my son is proud of me for this

One of the things I love about these young people is that they don’t have the hangups we have. They are bold. They are used to just reaching out to ANYONE, and speaking their mind. Sometimes that gets them in trouble, but lots of times they say what needs to be said. Because they can’t imagine they’ve could have been misled about the meaning of “open” and “transparency”. They say things we wish we could say. They make bold statements to shake things up … and this is the only way to innovation.

Companies are paying consultants big bucks to figure out how to innovate, and we’ve got the answer sitting right next to us, telling us that the 90s are retro!

When we hold this young woman up as a shining example of what not to do, we are training the next generation of information workers to shut up, keep their heads down, never do or say anything to rock the boat. We’re killing innovation. We are teaching them to be cogs in the machine, that as long as they are good little cogs that keep up with the grind (even when they are starving) they will have a “job”. But if they speak up, challenge the hierarchy, they will be banned to struggle in the chaos with the other rabble rousers.

We’ve been working so hard to change that…..we can’t give up on them now!

Jeremy Stoppelman, I don’t know you but I want to believe you are a decent guy. Here’s my challenge to you: don’t let your corporate PR get in the way of you speaking with this employee who had the balls to reach out to you directly about the discrepancy in what you say you want (solve problems with homelessness) and the realities of your own workers (they aren’t paid enough to buy groceries, get to work, or pay their insurance co-pays). Be as brave as she was and reach out to her, have a conversation. Help her get to the next place. Use the tools she did (twitter) and go around your PR handlers and set up that meeting!

Here’s my challenge to all of you who are chiding this young woman for speaking out: we need to encourage MORE of this. How can we protect them so their energy and ideas can actually be surfaced? Remember that we (information workers) are the means of production for our information factories. We need to do better than getting to the big house so we can be fed, we need to make sure that is happening for everyone.

I think Talia was on to something. Maybe it’s time for all of us to remember that we’re human beings, not resources. And we deserve to more than widgets in an information factory, or products of the information machine. Time to get a little mad y’all.

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