Just four days after a scathing account of her management style surfaced in the Verge, Steph Korey announced she’d be stepping down as chief executive of the Instagram-ubiquitous luggage company Away. The details revealed by the Verge aren’t particularly eye-popping for anyone familiar with stories of toxic bosses; no staplers were harmed in the making of this story. Nor was any pot smoked on a corporate airplane.
Korey was accused of more mundane examples of managerial malfeasance: criticizing employees in public instead of in private, sending intemperate memos late at night, underpaying and overworking junior staffers. Other offenses included trying to force employees to use her preferred communication tool (Slack) and blaming individual employees for problems that seemed to be more systemic.
This last has gotten the most attention in part because of a cringeworthy Slack message involved. Much of the Verge article focused on the customer service team, and Korey’s attempts to get them to answer customer questions more quickly — or become, in the inflated language of startup life, “customer-obsessed.”
Korey issued a series of Slack messages at 3 o’clock one February morning proclaiming that no paid time off or work from home requests would be approved until spot checks showed the team was answering 100% of all customer calls and chats for five days in a row. In fluent corporate doublespeak, she framed this as “an effort to support you in developing your skills.” She continued, “I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values.” In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves, and I hope you all appreciate the opportunity I’ve created for you to enhance your beating-taking skills.
Observers have been very quick to blame Korey (who has apologized), quick to blame Slack, and quick to claim such behavior is inexcusable. Yet somehow, despite this universal consternation, the world is still full of bosses who overwork their employees, underpay them, and send them crazy emails at all hours of the day and night.
The best outcome from this whole sorry saga would not be that incoming CEO Stuart Haselden (currently Lululemon’s chief operating officer) creates a kinder, gentler luggage company. I mean, the bags are nice, but the world would be fine without them. The best outcome here would be for other hard-driving bosses (and the investors who back them) to take a closer look at some unexamined behaviors.
Consider the common practice of sending round-the-clock messages to staff, for example. Even setting aside the negative impact late-night emails have on team morale and productivity, we can see in Korey’s story a clear example of why such messages are a bad idea: The sender puts herself at heightened risk of writing something she’ll regret later. Your judgment at 3 a.m. is just not as good as it is at 9 a.m.
Or take the more serious issue of underpaying and overworking employees to keep costs low and operations “lean.” “Leanness” has become a kind of corporate religion, especially among startups, as if there’s a prize going to the company with the most burned-out employees. But as the Verge story makes clear, there is a cost to running too lean — you may not have the staff you need to cover basic functions, or to support the new initiatives senior leaders are constantly dreaming up.
Between the lines of the article is a sense that the much-berated customer service team actually was struggling; at one point, when the company introduced new customization options, about 4,000 customer inquiries sat unanswered even as some staffers logged 16-hour days. Such a problem is hardly unique to Away: Senior leaders often have too many ideas and not enough employees to implement them. That’s because senior leaders love coming up with ideas, but hate what happens to their profit margins when they hire more people.
When the team inevitably struggles to get more done without adding more resources, the boss often feels she has no choice but to step in and do it herself. “If a single additional customer gets an imperfect luggage tag I am personally overtaking oversight of the monogramming program,” Korey wrote on Slack, her exasperation boiling over. That’s not a message any employee wants to read, and it generally isn’t a message any boss wants to deliver. No one says, “Gee, I think I’ll co-found a cool travel company so I can personally take over the luggage-tag monogramming program.”
So while the timing of Korey’s departure suggests a connection with the negative press, it is likely not that simple. Korey will remain as the board’s executive chairman, and has said she even helped recruit Haselden to replace her — a process that began in the spring, according to The Wall Street Journal. Given that it takes longer than four days to hire a CEO, there’s no reason to think that Korey was ousted over the article itself. But perhaps some of the incidents the article catalogs helped her realize that she was no longer enjoying the job, or the right person for it.
We can only hope that other bruising bosses come to the same conclusion, or, at the very least, sign out of Slack well before midnight.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.