I read @itsa_talia's recent open letter to her CEO and almost kept on going about my business, scrolling through my feeds, catching up with life after a few days off. But I caught some comments here and there and a smattering of not-so-subtle subtweets that stuck with me. The pattern of a person posting an idea online and the resulting negative comments play out every day on the Internet. I think we can do better.
First, to Talia: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and issue with us. You didn't have to. Also, it can be scary putting things out in the world, but you are brave, and you did it.
To the rest of us, let's step back and reflect rather than judge right or wrong on the part of anyone. If we do, we'll recognize that we don't (perhaps won't) have the complete story and therefore can't possibly know or fully understand either party's motivations for their actions. Let's seek to balance the discussion rather than making statements that further our own points of view.
I've jotted down some of my reflections below.
Themes and Ideas
In the various comments and tweets related to Talia's post, I saw several recurring negative themes and ideas. Herein I attempt to illicit balance by providing an alternate point of view.
You Made Bad Choices
Several folks stated that Talia had exercised poor judgment in deciding to:
- Live on her own, thus having to pay rent.
- Choose a college degree that's inadequate to find gainful employment.
- Believe it is reasonable to expect to live off her paycheck.
I could spend time on each of these (especially because they insinuate the author is not bright) but in the end, it all comes down to the following:
We ALL make mistakes at some point in our lives; it's how we learn.
That having been said, whether Talia's choices were mistakes is up to her to interpret. For us, it should be enough to know she has the agency to make her own decisions.
You Knew This was a Low-paying Job
This is related to the above theme but I wanted to point this out specifically because we know nothing of Talia's career plans. Perhaps she had a larger goal of advancing in the organization to do something she enjoyed. She did mention an interest/ability in making food-related memes and jokes. It's very likely she saw her customer service position as entree to a different role in the future.
This does nothing but serve to quiet the author. It does not further the conversation or acknowledge the subject matter. Further, Medium's reason for being is to provide a platform for people to voice their ideas and opinions. Given the choice to suffer in silence or voice her discontent, it's healthier (for everyone) that she chose the latter.
This was either stated explicitly or inferred by classifying the author as a 'millennial'. Much like labeling her a 'whiner', this sort of comment seeks to silence or deflect the conversation.
With respect to Talia's access to snacks and drinks in her office (as several whine-related comments chose to focus attention), this cannot be reasonably used to define her as entitled. Many employers choose to offer refreshments as a bid to be competitive among other companies for talent; some simply enjoy feeding their staff. It's true that not everyone enjoys such a benefit but claiming that she's entitled (or taking advantage) for receiving snacks is no different than claiming entitlement for one who regularly visits their doctor because they have medical insurance. Also, it's not much of a benefit if it's not used; nothing is gained from begrudging a person for doing so.
You're Bad-Mouthing Your Employer
I can understand how some would feel this way, especially her employer. It's reasonable to assume folks in Talia's organization were not pleased with her post. However, we don't know much about what she tried to do internally before posting to Medium. She does mention making some recommendations that were declined, but we don't know what, if anything, else she may have tried, including conversations with her manager or HR.
She Got What She Deserved
Talia's post concludes with an update that she's been terminated. Some folks are quick to quip that she deserved this outcome. In her Twitter feed, she mentions that HR claimed she violated the Terms of Conduct policy as part of her employment. I cannot speak to her specific circumestances but I will hazard an opinion on policies, in general.
Policies can be "useful"...:
- ... when they help inform or guide positive behaviors we want to see in our coworkers, when goodwill and love drive those that enforce them.
- ... to hide behind, when fear and shame control the reactions of those that enfoce them.
Was her employer's reaction to be expected? Perhaps. Humans tend to react poorly in many negative situations. In an attempt to avoid pain we will distance ourselves from the source of discomfort. All we learn, unfortunately, is how to avoid pain, not to heal or prevent it.
In any case someone didn't appreciate what she had to say, the way she said it, or the media within which she chose to say it. Someone was embarrassed and/or angry and chose to cite and execute company policy.
For the moment, I'm going to make an assumption that the events surrounding Talia's termination are in direct response to her post. Doing so allows me to describe how I imagine a better course of action could take place. I am, admittedly, taking license to make a point.
Yelp could have chosen to step back and reflect, considering the author's post, digesting her points, and starting a conversation:
Yelp: We hear you, Talia. It hurt to read the things you wrote in public, but we're listening. Talia: Thank you for saying so. I recognize it was painful to be exposed this way. Yelp: We'd like to sit down with you to agree on how we can work together to address these issues. Where would you like to start?
From there, both Talia and Yelp might be able to find common ground. Key to this dialogue is both parties being vulnerable and honest about the situation, their motivations, and what they are willing to do to address the issues.
Such a conversation would be very constructive and collaborative. For Yelp's part it would demonstrate they care about their employees, are willing to do the hard things, and sets an excellent example for other organizations to follow. For Talia, she may be able to effect the change she wants to see. Both would learn and grow from the experience.
A Note About Customer Service
Unless you've worked in any sort of customer-facing role, especially jobs strictly defined as 'customer service representative', you can't know what the day-to-day workload is like. Some days, in such a role, there will be folks you help that are happy with the outcome of their request, and they may even say so. But by and large, the requests customer service folks handle can be very negative. Unfortunately, customer service representatives are almost always the target of any hostility, simply because they are the face of the organization for a given point of contact.
Consider that the author, in conjunction with the stress of being unable to pay her bills, was also dealing with constant negativity every day. Such an environment takes its toll on a person. Perhaps her combined frustrations built up to a point that she needed to vent. I'm thankful she decided to write about it, rather than some other action (I noted her comment about her reasons for leaving the last place she lived).
Make a Choice
We can choose how we treat other people. We can simply attempt to avoid pain and react by denigrating a person for their choices, ability, or skills. Or we can step back, reflect on what it means to be part of a community, to understand other people's motivations, and respond with empathy and care.