I read about the recent Julie Horvath issue which is out there on the internet, and thought that I might share some of my experiences on this topic.
In case if you are not familiar with the Julie Horvath issue, Google it, or simply head over to TechCrunch who gave Julie’s side of the story.
tl;dr – Julie was an employee at GitHub who quit after feeling threatened at work
GitHub have tried to clean things up with a sincere and apologetic reply to Julie. They have taken some prompt action and that’s what matters.
So what went wrong?
In the entire episode, Julie must have felt threatened at work. Imagine having to battle out on multiple fronts with multiple people … and apart from that handle work as well. The nausea an employee might feel with so much politicking going on is natural. Who would not quit?
One of the most basic requirements of an employee (keep this term in mind folks) implicitly wants, is to feel secure. Be it financially, physically and mentally. These are the very basic requirements, if these are threatened, then the employee is bound to quit. If I were to use Maslow’s hierarchy as a model, then these would be the hygiene factors.
In letting a non-employee (the founder’s wife) sit within the working premises next to Julie, the physical security was in question. The mental security was being questioned by the love lost colleague and the founder in question. Add to it the way the organization reacted with radio silence and hushed tones, the financial security was also put in question. The next move should have been obvious, perhaps the reaction of the organization might have been to incite this move. The GitHub blog update suggests other wise, but we will never know that shall we?
The reason I chose to write about this matter, is because recently we had a similar situation at work. One of our earlier employees went through this insecurity … thanks to my behaviour. It took some time for me to reflect and talk to a few other founders to understand what drove this employee in question to leave … leave at such a short notice. Do I regret this, yes. Did we lose a good player, perhaps. Can this be avoided in the future, definitely.
It’s a lesson learned for me that employees are not to be treated as co-founders. You can cross certain boundaries with co-founders … those boundaries are a strict no-no with employees … even if these are the people who help you grow your organization.
Sometimes, the founder can go to extraneous lengths to retain employees … not because the organization cannot survive without them, but because of the achievements that individual can do if properly channelled. In doing so, lines are crossed … sometimes it helps in bonding the individual closer to the organization … almost like a trial by fire. Sometimes, it backfires … and even worse spreads like wildfire on social media.
In Julie’s own words, what the founder did was to retain her at the organization … however things escalated to such an extent that the very opposite happened. This is what would happen when you mix professional relationships with personal ones. In trying to build a personal relationship with your team, you sometimes cross the boundary. Most of the times it pays off.
So what should a founder do?
A start-up would always face this issue. In order to do greater things, the team has to work outside its zone of comfort … constantly. How then do you build this sense of security within the team?
One simple approach would be to not fraternize with the team. I have seen many a good start-up founders do that … and to good effect. Reduce the fraternization only during moments of celebration.
One of my clear learning from the past episode is work towards fostering a sense of security for the employees … so that means take all conflict discussions offline. Conflicts which endanger the sense of security should not be openly discussed.
What I am saying is to clearly have two separate levels of information parity. What are the things that you have tried at work and it has paid off?
PS – I don’t have all the answers, however I am learning as I journey on.