Trouble Brewing

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Mark Craig learned the hard way that all that glitters is not gold.

In recent months he bought up several cases of BrewDog beer hoping to find one of fifty ‘solid gold’ beer cans which the company had hidden as part of a promotion and which it said were worth £15,000.  

Golden can
Source: BrewDog

To his amazement, he struck lucky.  

He started making plans to fund his wedding by selling the gold.  But when he asked BrewDog to certify the can, he was told that it was mainly made of brass and was only gold-plated.  

BrewDog’s shiny promise was only skin deep. 

The irony is that the same month that Mr Craig was left holding his brass paper weight, over 250 BrewDog employees also criticised the company for failing to live up to its promises.  

In a public letter, they said that under BrewDog’s claims to be a ‘great employer’ and ‘passionate advocates for doing things the right way’ was actually a toxic culture which meant ‘being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given.’

We examined the employees’ letter and BrewDog’s response.  Both provide lessons on how bad management practices can seep into organisations and how you can respond if they do.

Let’s take a look.

An Open Letter to BrewDog

Over 60 current and former members of staff initially signed the open letter to the company, before it gathered more than 250 signatures in the following days.  That in the context of a company of about 700 people.

Open letter tweet

You can read the letter in full here, but we’ve tried to summarise the main points. 

  • Personality-driven culture: they note that for better and for worse, the culture of BrewDog reflects that of its founders, with particular attention given to James Watt. While the founders gave the company its passion for craft beer, they argue Watt in particular also gave it a focus on ‘growth, at all costs’ where ‘ends justify the means’.   So while BrewDog has driven annual sales to over £200 million, the signatories argue the ‘means’ have included misleading PR campaigns, toleration of sexist and misogynist brewers, and mistreatment of employees. 
  • Expectations vs reality: a distinct theme of the letter is the gap between BrewDog’s promised values and the reality of working at the company.  Specific frustrations include the company’s claims to want to save the planet whilst using private jets, and to be a ‘great employer’ whilst putting ‘at best hurdles, at worst genuine safety concerns’ in the path of its employees.
  • Growth at all costs: the signatories argue that the cultural focus on growth gave license for bosses to mistreat employees under the banner of a ‘fast-paced’ company without facing repercussions.  They describe staff as being ‘belittled’, ‘pressured into working beyond their capacity’ and being ‘forced out of the business’.  
  • Fear of speaking out: they put it bluntly: ‘the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we left’.  The fact that a staff committee was allegedly set up at one point to address this within the business suggests it was a serious concern at the company. 

At this point we should point out that we don’t know the true extent of the problems at BrewDog but the extent of the apology by the founders (see below) suggests that there are issues to sort out.

Now you might be thinking, that’s obviously dreadful, but that’s not going to happen in my team or company.  But the problems the letter references - malign individual influence, mismatched expectations, burnout, and overbearing leadership - all begin on a much smaller scale.  

  • You make a hire whose personality doesn’t really fit the team, but whose expertise would be really useful.  You think you’ve got a pretty strong team culture so it’ll be ok.  But then things start getting weird.  
  • Your company compromises its values to win some business because it’s been a tough year, but then does it again, and again.   
  • You run your team really hard, but promise yourself it’ll just be for a couple of weeks, only to find that 3 months later everyone is burnt out.   
  • You notice that people aren’t speaking up in meetings, but assume they’re just tired, only it keeps happening.

As managers, it’s a reminder to be vigilant about these issues so they don't grow into something much worse. As this letter shows, at best they can leave your teams disillusioned and upset, and at worst with mental health concerns where they feel exit is the only option.

The BrewDog Response

So, how should you respond to a letter like that?

According to an internal staff memo seen by the Guardian, apparently BrewDog initially considered rallying other staff to sign a counter letter.  

SPOILER: pitting your employees against one another does not highlight an inclusive, progressive culture. 

Thankfully they chose to apologise instead, and detail what steps they would be taking going forward (you can read in full here).

LInkedIn screenshot

The details are worth noting, as they seem a creditable, thoughtful response to the problems which were highlighted.  Albeit, the absence of some of these measures in the first place is pretty alarming.

Some of the main points were:

  • Independent review: the company is launching an anonymous staff survey to get a fuller picture of company culture, and hiring an independent agency to review culture and people practices.  Needless to say, given that the heart of the letter was about the founders’ influence on culture, some form of independence is critical.  No detail on who are the ones choosing the agency though… and as always, the key will be how the findings are presented and whether they’re acted upon.
  • Structure review: it’s positive to see the company implicitly accepting that this is not a case of ‘bad apples’ but that there are structural deficiencies which are leading to damaging working practices.  As was recently noted in another newsletter we like, there’s no I in burnout.  
  • International benefits: the company implicitly acknowledged that it has unfair benefits practices across its global locations which it’s going to equalise. 
  • Exit interviews: the positives on this one are that they’re going to offer an exit interview to anyone who’s left in the last 12 months, and for every leaver going forward, to learn from their experience. The negatives are that presumably that means they never had exit interviews before. Yeesh. 
  • Career development and training: BrewDog has committed to a ‘clear learning and development strategy’ and is recruiting for leaders in this area.  Again, you might question what’s currently in place if this needs to be implemented.  We’ve spoken before about how the absence of formal career ladders creates the space for informal decision-making, favouritism, and abuse. That appears to be what’s happened here.

For what it’s worth, the overall response was met with cautious thanks from the letter’s signatories.  Their appreciation of the apology and the measures was balanced with skepticism and anger that they felt Watt was still attempting to justify his ‘fast-paced’ environment.

As with all these things, the proof will be in BrewDog’s actions in the coming months, not the words of a LinkedIn post.

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