More than a dozen former Facebook employees detailed how the company’s leadership and its performance review system has created a culture where any dissent is discouraged and everyone has to pretend to be happy, or their careers will be damaged or destroyed.
by Salvador Rodriguez for CNBC
At a company-wide town hall in early October, numerous Facebook employees got in line to speak about their experiences with sexual harassment.
The company called the special town hall after head of policy Joel Kaplan caused an internal uproar for appearing at the congressional hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. A young female employee was among those who got up to speak, addressing her comments directly to COO Sheryl Sandberg.
“I was reticent to speak, Sheryl, because the pressure for us to act as though everything is fine and that we love working here is so great that it hurts,” she said, according to multiple former Facebook employees who witnessed the event.
“There shouldn’t be this pressure to pretend to love something when I don’t feel this way,” said the employee, setting off a wave of applause from her colleagues at the emotional town hall in Menlo Park, California.
The episode speaks to an atmosphere at Facebook in which employees feel pressure to place the company above all else in their lives, fall in line with their manager’s orders and force cordiality with their colleagues so they can advance. Several former employees likened the culture to a “cult.”
This culture has contributed to the company’s well-publicized wave of scandals over the last two years, such as governments spreading misinformation to try to influence elections and the misuse of private user data, according to many people who worked there during this period. They say Facebook might have have caught some of these problems sooner if employees were encouraged to deliver honest feedback. Amid these scandals, Facebook’s share price fell nearly 30 percent in 2018 and nearly 40 percent since a peak in July, resulting in a loss of more than $252 billion in market capitalization.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s reputation as being one of the best places in Silicon Valley to work is starting to show some cracks. According to Glassdoor, which lets employees anonymously review their workplaces, Facebook fell from being the best place to work in the U.S. to No. 7 in the last year.
But employees don’t complain in the workplace.
“There’s a real culture of ‘Even if you are f—ing miserable, you need to act like you love this place,’” said one ex-employee who left in October. “It is not OK to act like this is not the best place to work.”
This account is based on conversations with more than a dozen former Facebook employees who left between late 2016 and the end of 2018. These people requested anonymity in describing Facebook’s work culture, including its “stack ranking” employee performance evaluation system and their experiences with it, because none is authorized by Facebook to talk about their time there. This stack ranking system is similar to the one that was notoriously used by Microsoft before the company abandoned it in 2013, the former Facebook employees said.
Facebook declined to comment on former employees’ characterization of the work place as “cult-like.”
Inside the bubble
Former employees describe a top-down approach where major decisions are made by the company’s leadership, and employees are discouraged from voicing dissent — in direct contradiction to one of Sandberg’s mantras, “authentic self.”
For instance, at an all-hands meeting in early 2017, one employee asked Facebook Vice President David Fischer a tough question about a company program. Fischer took the question and answered, but within hours, the employee and his managers received angry calls from the team running that program, this person said.
“I never felt it was an environment that truly encouraged ‘authentic self’ and encouraged real dissent because the times I personally did it, I always got calls,” said the former manager, who left the company in early 2018.
The sentiment was echoed by another employee who left in 2017.
“What comes with scale and larger operations is you can’t afford to have too much individual voice,” said this person. “If you have an army, the larger the army is, the less individuals have voice. They have to follow the leader.”
In this employee’s two years at Facebook, his team grew from a few people to more than 50. He said “it was very much implied” to him and his teammates that they trust their leaders, follow orders and avoid having hard conversations.
The company’s culture of no-dissent prevented employees from speaking up about the impact that News Feed had on influencing the 2016 U.S. election, this person added.
The message was clear in August 2016 when the company laid off the editorial staff of its trending news team, shortly after some workers on that team leaked to the press that they were suppressing conservative-leaning stories. Employees were further discouraged from speaking up following the election, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg brushed off the accusation that Facebook could have impacted the election, calling that idea “crazy.”
The former employee described “a bubble” at the company in which employees are dissuaded from giving managers critical feedback or challenging decisions.
“I’m pretty disappointed in that because I have a lot of respect for Sheryl, and she preaches about giving hard feedback,” the employee said.
“All the things we were preaching, we weren’t doing enough of them. We weren’t having enough hard conversations. They need to realize that. They need to reflect and ask if they’re having hard conversations or just being echo chambers of themselves.”
Show no weakness
Many former employees blamed the cult-like atmosphere partly on Facebook’s performance review system, which requires employees to get reviews from approximately five of their peers twice a year. This peer review system pressures employees to forge friendships with colleagues at every possible opportunity, whether it be going to lunch together each day or hanging out after work.
“It’s a little bit of a popularity contest,” said one manager who left the company in 2017. “You can cherry-pick the people who like you — maybe throw in one bad apple to equalize it.”
Peers can provide feedback directly to their colleagues, or they can send the reviews to the employee’s manager. That feedback is typically treated as anonymous and cannot be challenged.
“You have invisible charges against you, and that figures mightily into your review,” said an employee who left in October. “Your negative feedback can haunt you for all your days at Facebook.”
Several former employees said that peers and managers iced them out because they had personal commitments or problems that required significant attention outside of work.
For instance, one employee who left in recent weeks said a manager was critical in a public team meeting because the employee didn’t attend a team-building event outside work. At the time, this person was going through a divorce.
“She definitely marked me down for not attending those team-building events, but I couldn’t attend because I was going through my own issues and needed work-life balance,” said the employee.
Employees are not required to attend after-hours events, according to a Facebook spokeswoman, adding that collaboration is important at the company.
Another manager who also left the company in recent weeks said she once took multiple weeks of vacation instead of going on medical leave to treat a major illness. She says she did this based on advice from her supervisor.
“I was afraid that if I told too many people or took too much time off, I would be seen as unable to do my job,” the former manager said. “I was scared that if I let up in any way, shape or form they would crumble me, and they did.”
Ironically, one of the best ways to see the desperation to be liked is to follow Facebook employees on Facebook itself.
Employees parade the company’s projects and post any report on the benefits of working at the company or the positive impact the company is making on the world. This is in part a show for peers and managers, former employees said.
“People are very mindful about who they’re connected with on Facebook who they also work with and how what they’re posting will put them in a favorable light to their managers,” an employee who left in 2016 said.
As with many social media users, the online content does not always reflect the offline emotions.
“There’s so many people there who are unhappy, but their Facebook posts alone don’t reflect the backdoor conversations you have with people where they’re crying and really unhappy,” she said.
How employees are graded
Twice a year, this peer feedback comes into play in so-called calibration meetings, where employees are given one of seven grades.
Managers deliberate with their peers to grade employees in all levels below them. As the review process moves up the chain over the course of multiple weeks, lower-level managers gradually leave the room, until the company’s vice presidents finish the calibration. At this point, Zuckerberg and Sandberg sign off that their vice presidents have done due diligence, and each employee’s grade for the past six months is finalized.
But there’s a companywide limit on the percentage of employees who can receive each grade. So during the reviews process, managers compete against their peer managers to secure strong grades for their direct reports. Managers are compelled to vouch fiercely for their favorite employees, but don’t speak up for employees they don’t like or who have previously received poor ratings.
“There’s a saying at Facebook that once you have one bad half, you’re destined for bad halves the rest of your time there. That stigma will follow you,” said a manager who left in September.
According to two former executives, the grade breakdown is approximately as follows:
- “Redefine,” the highest grade, is given to fewer than 5 percent of employees
- “Greatly exceeds expectations”: 10 percent
- Exceeds”: 35 percent
- “Meets all”: 35 to 40 percent
- “Meets most,” a low grade that puts future employment at risk, goes to most of the remaining 10 to 15 percent
- “Meets some” grades are extremely rare and are seen as an indication that you’re probably getting fired, according to multiple employees.
- “Does not meet” are exceptionally rare, as most employees are fired before they get to that level. (The distribution of these grades are not a hard limit but rather a recommended guidance for managers to follow, according to a Facebook spokeswoman.)
Facebook isn’t the only tech company to use a performance evaluation system where a percentage of employees is pegged to each performance grade, meaning that there’s always a fixed population at risk of being fired. Pioneered by Jack Welch at General Electric in the 1990s and sometimes known as “stack ranking,” this method is fairly common in Silicon Valley and was most notoriously used by Microsoft until the company got rid of it in 2013 after widespread employee complaints.
Stack ranking systems work well at companies with competitive environments that compare employees on objectively measurable performance, according to Alexandra Michel, professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies work culture. However, the system tends to break down and cause distrust among employees and create a political atmosphere when applied by companies that measure performance subjectively, or companies that demand employee loyalty in exchange for benefits and the promise of career advancement, Michel said.
“If you have an environment that is completely cutthroat like Wall Street, this system works pretty well,” Michel said. “But if you have employees who come in and want to be taken care of, want to learn, want to be part of a warm group and people who care about them — that’s a very jarring mismatch.”
Since early 2017, Facebook has become more rigorous in distributing grades by specific percentages, according to multiple former employees.
“I had a boss literally say to me ‘You don’t have enough people in ‘meets some,’ ‘meets most,’ and ‘meets all,’” said a former director who left earlier this year. “I was finding myself making up things to be hypercritical of employees to give them lower ratings than they really deserved.”
These twice-yearly reviews encourage employees to be particularly productive around June and December, working nights and weekends as they race to impress bosses before reviews, which are typically completed in August and February. It’s especially true in December, the half Facebook predominantly uses to determine which employees will receive promotions.
This rush causes employees to focus on short-term goals and push out features that drive user engagement and improve their own metrics without fully considering potential long-term negative impacts on user experience or privacy, multiple former employees said.
“If you’re up for promotion, and it’s based on whether you get a product out or not, you’re almost certainly going to push that product out,” a former engineer said. “Otherwise you’re going to have to wait another year to get that promotion.”
As employees begin gathering peer reviews and buckling up for their next round of calibrations in February, the process will reveal how employees are thinking of the company after a bruising 2018, according to employees who left recently.
There will be an extra level of anxiety around the process this time, one person said. Folks who have been wanting to leave will be hoping to notch a high rating so they can depart on good terms. Others who are committed to the company will be torn between speaking up about their concerns or staying in line for the sake of their careers. Any changes to company’s grading process this time could reveal whether Facebook is taking special steps to keep valued employees around, or continuing along the same lines.
“This review cycle will be particularly colorful for them,” according to a director who left recently.