Tech Culture and Toxicity: Media Coverage of Workplace Narratives in the 2020s vs 2010s

Tech company culture was once seen as the ‘special sauce’ for the most innovative brands in the world, while today many of those same companies face criticism for biases in their workplaces and products. We have been researching how media coverage of tech workplace culture has evolved and we are now sharing both our findings and our recommendations.

In the 2010s, the tech sector tended to set the standard for workplace amenities and culture. Tech giants and startups dominated lists of the best places to work and made news with onsite dry cleaning, catered meals and other lavish perks. That narrative has shifted in recent years. For example, the #MeToo movement revealed a culture of institutional harassment rife within tech; multiple whistleblowers exposed product and business decisions that subordinated societal needs in favor of growth at all costs; and tech companies faced greater scrutiny from Congress, the media and the public.

Negative workplace stories can quickly erode a company’s reputation, but the inverse also holds true, even in today’s climate. Companies have the opportunity both to engage in conversations about the future workplace and also to build, or burnish, their reputations as great employers.

Our recommendation—derived from our analysis and decades of client experience—is for companies to go beyond broad perspectives about the Future of Work and the lengthy lists of the benefits they provide. Leaders must speak directly and proactively about the actions they’re taking to transform not only their business and culture, but also the industry at large. They need to lay that all out against the backdrop of changing social, political and economic forces. In doing so, leaders are much more likely to find room for thought leadership, reputation building and competitive differentiation.

To better understand these opportunities, our team set out to evaluate the tech media workplace narrative using a natural language processing tool for measured media. We looked at conversations from two sides of the same coin: the narrative surrounding toxicity in tech versus more positive conversations about the tech workplace. Our analysis included English-language measured media between January 2019 and January 2022, covering the periods before COVID-19, at the height of the pandemic, and the gradual reopening of offices along with the rise of hybrid work.

<split-lines>“Leaders must speak directly and proactively about the actions they’re taking to transform not only their business and culture, but also the industry at large.”<split-lines>

What Is the State of the Media Conversation?

Our research shows a nearly equal volume of coverage for both sides of the workplace conversation—toxic and positive—from 2019 to 2022. However, the narratives were structured entirely differently as was the makeup of the referenced players.

The coverage of ‘toxic workplaces’ was split between two distinct areas of coverage: 1) event- or company-specific news stories and 2) an ongoing debate about how to assess and transform a toxic tech workplace from a variety of angles.

Media coverage was driven by top business and tech outlets, and a select group of reporters’ stories generated the highest levels of engagement.

The stories with the most engagement on social media focused on complaints raised against the largest tech companies—including specific investigations as well as broader issues within workplace culture.

In contrast, the positive Future of Work narrative was much more an echo chamber of agreement around actions that should be taken. This narrative was written about primarily in industry trade publications like HR Technology and TechRepublic, and also in career-specific and leadership-focused websites such as startup and tech company community Built In and job search site The Ladders. Compared to the toxic workplace narrative, these stories generated relatively modest levels of engagement.

While Best Places to Work awards and rankings registered in our analysis, they were disconnected from the broader workplace culture conversation and did not tend to drive media coverage.

Look Within, Engage with Employees and Invest Wisely

Our qualitative, holistic review of the media narrative tells us that to break through in workplace conversations, companies need to take demonstrable action—through concrete investments, transformation and advocacy. By contrast, participating in Future of Work commentary can come across as navel-gazing or insubstantial. This is particularly true for larger tech companies who were the dominant focus of the negative coverage.

Attempts to engage in crowded, trend-driven conversations will likely limit a company’s ability to shape the conversation, and will be seen as performative—it’s easy to follow and participate in workplace topics that inspire little or no disagreement.

<split-lines>“To break through in workplace conversations, companies need to take demonstrable action—through concrete investments, transformation and advocacy.”<split-lines>

Drawing on our research, we would call out three key recommendations:

1. Look within and share what you see. We believe companies can develop powerful thought leadership programs with leaders at the executive level driving and advocating for industry-wide transformation, subjecting themselves to ongoing measurement, and reporting on their progress. While this approach to communications requires a company to be transparent about its challenges—and open itself up to potential criticism—the commitment to accountability can demonstrate values that resonate with the next generation of the tech workforce.

For example, Atlassian was at the forefront of this movement, lending transparency into the state of D&I within the developer community and its own company through regular reporting. Under its executive leadership, the company demonstrated meaningful progress in hiring and retaining diverse candidates, and then open sourced its D&I toolkit.

2. Employees are your biggest critics and champions. Reputation-building starts from within. While this is true for companies of all sizes and at all stages of development, it poses significant opportunities and risks for companies who prioritize innovation and fast growth. Recent research indicates that employees at innovative companies are more likely to rate their work-life balance negatively, and a toxic culture is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry.

In the wake of The Great Resignation, employees are reprioritizing and reconsidering the tradeoffs they’ve made in the name of advancing their careers, and are becoming even more vocal about their expectations and experiences. Additionally, research has shown that younger employees prioritize a company’s values and impact more than previous generations. It’s paramount that leaders walk the walk by embedding purpose and positive impact into their day-to-day work, as well as into their business decisions, investments, policies and advocacy.

3. Make investments that reflect your maturity and resources. Established companies are more closely scrutinized than emerging brands. They have the opportunity to make a greater impact, whether positive or negative.

Our analysis revealed that the largest tech companies dominated negative headlines and tended to drive the most social media engagement. Those companies were rarely covered in a positive light including when endeavoring to make positive change. For instance, when their social impact investments were called out as insufficient. Companies with more resources, reach and public visibility face higher expectations for action and advocacy—small wins won’t cut it.

<split-lines>“It’s paramount that leaders walk the walk by embedding purpose and positive impact into their day-to-day work.”<split-lines>

Commit to Action, Transparency and Measuring Progress

Conversations about the future workplace are densely packed with industry-insider talk and other self-serving announcements. We believe companies who commit to action, transparency and measuring their progress can gain an outsized voice in shaping key debates. They might also be the ones who end up winning the war on talent and changing the way business is done.

The world of work is changing rapidly and so are conversations about how and why we work, and what we expect of brands and employers. Tech has been at the forefront of workplace conversations for years, and now is not the time to shy away from more controversial, nuanced and meaningful topics. The companies who engage in conversations like these will be much more likely to secure their positions as innovators and leaders and able to make essential contributions to the future of their industries.

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