The following email letter was sent to the members of the Leadership team at one of my former employers, after myself and five other members of staff were laid off without warning. I never received a response to the issues I raised in this email.
I had originally intended to write this email to Mac and CC in the Leadership team, but since he is currently ill I have decided to address it to you all. The things I have to say may be difficult to hear, but it is important to me that they are heard, and I believe a proper acknowledgement of these issues will also benefit Commsor as it continues to grow and evolve.
As you know, on Wednesday 19th, myself, [and five other people] were fired as part of a radical restructuring of the Product department, with my limited understanding of the context being that a consultancy firm is being brought in to take over development of the Community OS.
The manner in which we were all fired was, to put it mildly, abrupt, and not in keeping with either our previous offboarding practices, nor what most people would consider to be good practice for offboarding employees. Some of us were removed from Slack and Github while we were working, or while we were on a call with management telling us we had been fired. Others, myself included, were actually removed from Slack and Github before we had been contacted by management. For a non-remote company, this would be akin to being forcibly removed from the office by security and then fired in the car park.
For myself, others who were fired, and many people who remain at Commsor, this experience was a profound emotional shock, and has raised many questions. Why is the company undertaking this restructuring? Is this restructuring the best solution for product development moving forwards? Why did we have to be fired as part of this plan? Why did we have to be removed from Slack so quickly? Why weren’t we given any notice or warning? Who was consulted about these changes? And so on.
Community is the beating heart of Commsor: it’s in the name; it’s in the vision (“Community-Led companies are the future”); it’s in the values (“We put community first”); and it’s in the Community-Led Model (“Internal layer: people who work at your organization”). Which is why the way we have been forced out of the company is so heartbreaking. In the two and a half years I had been at Commsor, I had worked with some fantastic people and started to build some great relationships, and I hope to continue with those relationships in the future. I felt like Commsor was a community, and that I was part of it. But when I was removed from Slack with no warning, those ties were cut. My opportunity to say goodbye to my colleagues was stolen from me, and I now have no way to contact many of the people I had come to admire over the years. Community is not about individuals, it is about relationships, and the failure of the company to manage our relationships as part of this transition indicates a fundamental disconnect between the operational culture as it stands today, and the primary vision and objectives of the company and how it perceives itself. This is an extremely dangerous place for any organisation to be in.
Community is also about care, and communities have a duty of care towards their members. Some of us who have been ousted are currently in vulnerable positions in our personal lives, but no attempt had been made to check-in with us before we were fired. It is also not clear if our managers were consulted about these decisions before we were let go. There was no warning, there were no exit interviews. Instead, we have been fired ‘effective immediately’, an action which should only be taken in the most extreme circumstances, where the continued presence of an employee constitutes an existential threat to the business or the safety of its employees or customers. Due to our Slack accounts being deactivated so quickly, there was no opportunity for those of us who were fired to contact each other and begin to process this news together. Instead, potentially vulnerable people were cut off from each other at a time when they needed each other for support and healing. At least for myself, the subsequent hours after my termination were a frantic scramble to try and reconnect with some of my former colleagues and to make sure they were OK.
The ramifications of these events have not just been felt by those of us who were fired, but also by those who remain in the company. Several employees I have talked to indicate that they no longer feel safe in their positions, and that they also do not understand the motivations for these decisions, nor why action had to be taken so swiftly. To put it bluntly, the events of Wednesday 19th have violated the dignity and sense of safety of everyone at Commsor, and damaged the company’s culture, possibly irreparably.
I still believe in the vision of Commsor and the capability of the people who work there, including the many fantastic people in the Leadership team. Which is why this change and the way it has been enacted is so perplexing and painful to me. There has long been a pattern at Commsor, of erratic decision-making coupled with poor communication. I will not list specific examples here, because I do not want to point fingers at individual people or decisions. What’s important is that many decisions have been made behind closed doors, and then these decisions have been communicated to the rest of the company at the last minute possible; the decisions were final, with no room for discussion or dissent; and no explanation or exposition of the motivating factors or justifications were given. This ‘diktat culture’ of rapid, top-down decision-making is pervasive at Commsor, and is not limited to operational or leadership decisions, but also affects the Product team. I will admit that I have also been very immediate in my decision-making in the past, such as the recent move in Product to restructure our roadmap around ‘milestones’ and to introduce new documentation and processes. However, I had been hoping to improve our processes further by organising workshops both inside the Product team, and with Sales and Success, in order to collaboratively identify the weaknesses in our team and co-produce appropriate solutions.
I have raised these issues around communication and decision-making on numerous occasions, and my concerns were dismissed every time. I have also tried to introduce user research as a fundamental component of the product lifecycle which must be explicitly planned and documented on the roadmap. These two sets of actions are not distinct, but rather they reflect my firm beliefs that effective decision-making of any kind must be rooted in transparent processes which examine problems and solutions as distinct factors. When an issue is discovered, the first step should always be to write a thorough problem statement, and only then can different solutions be evaluated against that problem statement in order to determine which solution is best. Commsor has repeatedly failed, both operationally and in Product, to maintain this focus on problems, and instead has jumped straight to adopting specific solutions. This has created an opaque decision-making process, where decisions come from the top-down, and where no justification is provided or documented for why a given solution has been chosen. The results have been failed feature launches, failure to improve internal processes, and an atmosphere of uncertainty and disempowerment.
I have also been told that, in the all-hands meeting for the announcement of the restructuring and our termination, someone from Leadership had stated that we (all of us who were fired) had repeatedly received negative feedback and failed to improve, and that this was a further reason for our dismissal. This is incorrect. In my entire time at Commsor I have only received negative feedback once, and it was from our first CTO Dominic, concerning a trivial matter. I would go so far as to say that since Dominic’s departure, I have never received feedback about my performance, either positive or negative. Dominic’s approach to people management was heavily inspired by Manager Tools, and our 1:1 meetings and feedback process were highly structured. When Dominic wanted to give me feedback, he would first ask “Can I give you some feedback?” to ensure I was in a receptive mindset. This also makes it very clear and explicit that I was formally being given feedback. If I said yes, he would then deliver feedback in the form “When you do <action>, it has <outcome>” and then follow up with either praise, or a prompt about what I could do differently, depending on if the feedback was positive or negative. This entire process was explained to me before it was implemented, so that I knew exactly what to expect.
I know that we have had problems in the Product team. I know that we have failed to meet the expectations of our leaders, of Sales, of Success, and of our current and prospective customers. I know that some of those failures are my fault. But in all of the conversations I have had with people across the company about the issues in the Product team, I was never once told that my personal performance was unsatisfactory, or that the steps myself and my colleagues were taking to ‘right the ship’ were incorrect or insufficient. It is easier to say to someone that “The Product team is repeatedly failing to meet deadlines”, that it is to say “Your efforts to fix the Product team are insufficient and if you can’t fix these problems you will be fired”. However, the former is not personal feedback. Any appropriate personal feedback mechanism has to be extremely clear, candid, and rely on you-statements. If anyone in Leadership was unhappy with the personal performance of myself or any of my colleagues, you could always have reached out via Slack DM to have a quick call. Instead, my scheduled 1:1 meetings with some people in Leadership were repeatedly pushed back or cancelled for months at a time.
These issues around decision, communication, feedback, and the failures of the Product team, do not exist in isolation. They are all factors of a systemic failure within the processes and structure of Commsor as an organisation. A culture of secrecy has developed, exemplified by the Bifrost meeting moving from a podcast, to a text update, and finally to no updates. Engineers have been turned in to people managers, but have not received any training for these new responsibilities. Documentation about roles and processes has never materialised. The list could go on. My point is, these failures are not the fault of individual people, rather they are the result of systematic dysfunctions in the relations and processes which link the people of Commsor together. Building an organisation is work in itself, and requires expertise and dedication; good processes and structures will not materialise without effort. Unfortunately, despite my keen interests in organisation design and systems thinking, I have been unable to fix these problems, or convince others of their seriousness or of the required perspective or time commitment required to address them adequately.
I would love to know more about the reasons for the restructuring, about the consultancy who are being brought in, and about what the path ahead looks like for Product at Commsor. Not only would this help myself and other former employees to understand the decision to fire us and help us to process this news, but it would also provide me with confidence that Commsor is still on the right track and has a good chance of success in its mission going forwards. I had been at Commsor from day one, back when Jacob was still there as Mac’s co-founder, even before Dominic had joined as the first CTO. As Engineer #1 I laid the groundwork for and undertook much of the product development that got the OS to where it is today. I have never felt like ‘just an employee’, instead I have always felt that Commsor was something I was building with Mac and everyone else. To be forced to walk away from something I value so much is upsetting, but to think that all of the value I have created, and all of the effort I have put in, might evaporate and all be for nothing, is devastating.
In the UK, we are fortunate to have stronger labour laws around termination than in the US. In previous roles I have had a one month notice period, and during that period I was still employed, and I would work on transitioning out of my role to make sure that the business was in a sustainable place once I had left. In contrast, my departure from Commsor has been delivered as an immediate termination with two weeks of severance pay. Perhaps this is a cultural difference between the US and UK, in which case I would advise People and Operations to look in to provisioning a transparent offboarding process that meets the expectations of employees across a range of countries.
However, it does occur to me that the swiftness of action taken here has introduced additional risks to the business which could have been mitigated through earlier and more up-front communication with everyone involved. First, as the Engineering team has been cut in half, there are now several in-flight projects which are now under-resourced, and this will affect delivery of the milestones for those projects. Second, the technical planning for this transition will almost certainly be insufficient, because there are technical and engineering questions about this work which cannot have been adequately addressed by leadership alone, as answering these questions would have required direct consultation with engineers. Finally, those of us who have been excised possess product and engineering knowledge about various aspects of the OS and underlying infrastructure, and we are no longer available to answer questions about code or past decisions: our collective knowledge has been discarded by the company. All of these risks could have been mitigated by simply taking this transition slightly slower, and conducting it over a few days or weeks, instead of the minutes in which it seems to have taken place from the perspective of myself and other people outside of the Leadership team.
So how do we all move forwards from here? At an absolute minimum, I would like members of the Leadership team to schedule a Zoom call with myself and others who have been fired, so that we can get answers to these questions and develop an adequate understanding of why we have been fired. I want to know what the process was for making this decision. I want to know why we were all terminated so immediately with zero warning. I want to know how leadership intends to manage this transition of the Product team with the introduction of this consultancy. I want to know what steps will be taken to eliminate the diktat culture, and to prevent Kafkaesque events such as these from happening again. I also hope that you will all accept my critiques of the company and this situation in the spirit they are intended: in good faith, and as a first step towards repairing the damage that has been caused here. All tea, no shade.