An analysis of the workplace toxicity at travel brand Away that led to an executive resignation

Amid a workplace horror story scandal, Steph Korey, cofounder of travel brand Away, is stepping down as CEO, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. Korey is being replaced by Stuart Haselden, who will be leaving his current role as the chief operating officer at Lululemon Athletica Inc. to begin at Away on Jan. 13, 2020.

Korey, whose title change is the latest news in a string of events that have been brought to the public’s attention over the past week, will move into the role of executive chairman. In an exposé that went live on Thursday, The Verge uncovered incidents that point to a toxic work environment at Away, including examples of manipulation, intimidation, and aggressive language.

“At Away, we purposely take a measured approach in order to be really thoughtful about the team, culture, and business that we’re building,” Korey told Ladders in October, in contrast to many accounts from employees or former employees in the exposé. “Ultimately, we want to make sure we get it right as we grow, so that what we’re creating a truly sustainable business for the future.”

The company reported that the search for a new CEO at Away has been underway since the spring.

“In light of the article, it’s been a difficult few days for the company,” Jen Rubio, Away cofounder, president, and chief brand officer told The Wall Street Journal. “But we don’t want that to overshadow this announcement.”

Here’s a breakdown of the reports of what happened at the company that led to the change in leadership.

Restricting internal communication at Away

Instant messaging is certainly becoming the preferred communication method in offices, but Away went as far as to ban emails between employees.

Interestingly, those direct instant messages on Slack were supposed to be used rarely- and never for subjects pertaining to work, rather to ask a coworker to grab lunch or a coffee. Private channels on Slack were supposed to be created rarely, and only ever used for work purposes.

The Slack rule was said to be implemented as a manner of increasing transparency, but employees say that it actually created one in which they could not communicate truthfully.

Additionally, the “transparency” turned instead into “intimidation”, and Away CEO Steph Korey was a main culprit, according to former employees that spoke to The Verge.

“You could hear her typing and you knew something bad was going to happen,” one former customer experience associate told the publication.

When transparency transcends into criticism in public channels

“Something that I’m particularly proud of is the way Jen [Rubio] and I encourage our team to embrace failure,” Korey told Ladders in October. “Reframing mistakes or moments of ‘failure’ as a chance to iterate and grow has been one of our biggest keys to success. As leaders, it’s our job to make sure the team isn’t shying away from taking thoughtful risks, and when someone does fail, we make sure to talk about it—and even celebrate it as a means of ‘failing forward’.”

While Korey described this attitude in October 2019, it doesn’t seem that this has always been the way things were handled at the company.

As a part of the exposé, The Verge acquired screenshots of messages that CEO Steph Korey had sent during a situation that arose around the time of Thanksgiving 2018. The company had just launched a new limited-edition line called the Solstice Collection, but the initiative was rolling out less than smoothly.

When Korey found out the number of customers waiting for shipments, she was far from pleased. When a disappointing plan was presented to her about how to attack the situation, she sent out a slew of Slack messages to one of the channels in charge of these operations.

“We just kind of let her rant,” one employee recalled of the situation. “It was like having your pants pulled down in front of the company and then they just walk away.”

“One of the people in the article mentioned that she could have the criticism that she had, but why did she have to do it in front of 10 people?” said Executive Leadership Coach Dr. Andrea Goeglein. “You praise in public, and you develop and give feedback in private. That’s a base leadership tool.”

Customer experience nightmare

Customer experience agents usually know what they’re getting into, but when companies sell a vision of a passionate team that has a shared interest in something as glamorous as travel, it can be a little easier to say yes to committing more time in the office, especially around the holidays.

But events at Away went beyond asking employees to work longer hours. In December 2018, Korey asked customer experience members to cancel future travel plans until the holidays were over.

In January, members of the customer experience team were reportedly burnt out. Then, the day before Valentine’s Day, Korey announced in a series of Slack messages beginning at 3 am that paid time off requests from the team would no longer be considered.

“I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability,” Korey wrote in the channel.

Apology from Away CEO Steph Korey

In Millennial executive fashion, Korey took to Twitter to express how she felt about the whole situation.

“At times, I expressed myself in ways that hurt the team,” she wrote in a message. “I can imagine how people felt reading those messages; I was appalled and embarrassed reading them myself.”

How Away handled news of the story

The drama continued on Friday when The Verge received, what else but more screenshots of Slack messages in which Away managers asked their direct reports not to interact with the story online.

“Please do not fave/like/comment or interact with any commentary (negative or positive) through either your personal or professional accounts,” one message said, according to The Verge‘s report.

The danger of communication in today’s workforce

“What executives need to remember is that internal communications are never fully secure – anyone can take a screenshot, and that screenshot can always come back to haunt you,” said Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR and crisis expert.

Torossian urges leaders to take a second look at messages before they hit send and consider if they would be comfortable should the message they are about to send become public one say.

“If the answer is no, it is always better to take a step back and reconsider how you are speaking to and with your employees, and find a better, more effective system for feedback that leaves the executive satisfied that their message has been communicated respectfully, and the employee feeling as if they have received constructive feedback which will help them solve the problem,” Torossian said.