There are many, many jobs that are much worse than working at Netflix. But based on an extensive profile of the company’s culture, the streaming company certainly seems to have built a unique version of corporate hell.
Citing interviews with more than 70 current and former employees (some on the record, some off), the Wall Street Journal has published an inside account of Netflix workplace culture. It details a philosophy cobbled together from bits and pieces of self-help lit, business school puffery, Silicon Valley disruption, and new-agey commitments to radical transparency. More than anything, it just seems bizarre.
The profile’s sources described the “Netflix way” as a structure founded on brutal honesty, ritual humiliation, insider lingo, and constant fear. It’s a mix of elements that a lot of people in corporate culture might recognize but according to many employees, it’s been a chaotic process that is difficult to scale as the company carries out its plans of world domination.
Above all, the “Netflix way” is about firing anyone who might not qualify as the best of the best. Supervisors are required to apply the “Keeper Test,” an exercise in which they ask themselves if they would fight to keep an employee on staff. Those who don’t take the test seriously and fail to cull the weakest from the herd can find themselves on the chopping block. A former marketing vice president described to the Journal how she was working over the weekend to promote the second season of Orange Is the New Black in New York City, and received word that her boss wanted to have an early meeting on Monday. When she arrived to the meeting, she was told that she was fired because she wasn’t a “cultural fit.” Chief Talent Officer Tawni Nazario-Cranz later told the former executive that she should have fired one of the people she supervised faster. She had failed the “Keeper Test.” Nazario-Cranz was subsequently fired last year. Several managers said they feel they have to make sure to fire people or they’ll look soft.
Firings can be abrupt but Netflix maintains that its radically transparent culture should give everyone a good idea of where they stand. Executives regularly hold roundtables in which they criticize each other and all employees are encouraged to give each other no-holds-barred feedback. When a person screws up they are expected to pay public penance and explain to others what they did wrong in a process called “sunshining.” When someone is fired, an email is sent to employees explaining in detail why they were fired. Often times the details of firings are outlined at length in-person at all-hands meetings.
CEO Reed Hastings is described as a dedicated adherent to the culture and several former employees said he is “unencumbered by emotion”—in a good way. One example of his excellent inability to feel was when he fired former product manager Neil Hunt for failing the “Keeper Test.” Hunt was at Netflix from the beginning and a close friend of Hastings. But last year, Hastings came to Hunt and explained that the company’s various expansions made Greg Peters a better fit and that he would take over. Hunt was out. He said that we wouldn’t have chosen that time to leave but he wasn’t bitter.
Netflix told the Journal that while most companies make personal decisions based on an 80/20 split between skills and cultural fit, the streaming service prefers to weigh things 50/50. Asked for comment on the story, a Netflix spokesperson sent Gizmodo the following statement:
We believe strongly in maintaining a high performance culture and giving people the freedom to do their best work. Fewer controls and greater accountability enable our employees to thrive, making smarter, more creative decisions, which means even better entertainment for our members. While we believe parts of this piece do not reflect how most employees experience Netflix, we’re constantly working to learn and improve.
Kill or be killed seems to be accepted as a mode of operation. One employee expressed the feeling that they live in fear of being fired every day at an executive meeting. A vice president named Karen Barragan was said to have responded: “Good, because fear drives you.” Barragan disputed the account.
The fact is most of the employees interviewed by the Journal didn’t have particularly harsh words for Netflix even if they didn’t agree with the way it works or felt its approach was cruel. Paying employees ungodly sums of money helps take the edge off. But many sources said that things like the “Keeper Test” were just a fancy cover for standard workplace politics, and transparency efforts were just embarrassing and awkward. Some said that the public airing of dismissals simply fueled gossip.
It’s also led to culture shock as the company rapidly expands, takes on bigger loads of debt, and faces stiff competition. Employees in Singapore were shocked when they first experienced the culture of rapid termination and laws in countries like the Netherlands prevent Netflix from operating in its true Darwinian form.
Double-standards on transparency create confusion. One executive said he was fired because he did not inform others about another employee’s medical condition out of respect for their privacy. Netflix saw this as not being “forthright with us around a major employee issue.” But Jonathan Friedland, former chief communications officer was a little too forthright and open when transparently talking out issues. He was fired this summer after he used the n-word in separate meetings explaining language that can make some people uncomfortable.
Hastings waffled for months on firing Friedland and subsequently “sunshined” his failure in judgment at a retreat. According to the Journal, he apologized on stage and sliced a lemon in half. He squeezed it into a glass and drank it. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” he wisely explained. That’s not how you make lemonade. It’s just lemon juice and if you drink too much you’ll probably vomit.