Former Snap Employee Questions Company's Culture and Diversity

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May 29, 2018
Updated 14d ago

The Cheddar Summary

  • A former Snap software engineer wrote an email last November criticizing the company for not being welcoming to women and people of color.
  • Snap told Cheddar it’s making efforts to address what the engineer, Shannon Lubetich, called a “toxic” and “sexist” culture.
  • Women make up less than a quarter of Snap’s senior managers, and only 13 percent of the technology roles at the company, according to a Snap spokesperson. It’s the first time the company has publicly shared any diversity statistics about its workforce.
  • To address low morale among Snap employees, people inside the company said the CEO Evan Spiegel has been increasingly visible and communicative. He recently told employees that he wants the company to “contribute to human progress,” and be more inclusive.

By Alex Heath

On her last day working at Snap, a software engineer Shannon Lubetich typed out a farewell email from her desk in the company’s San Francisco office and hit send.

In the message composed last November, a couple of hours before her email account would be shut off, Lubetich listed the traits that can describe an engineer, including kind, compassionate, a woman, and a person of color.

“It's fine if this list doesn't describe you,” she wrote. “But it's not fine if you think, consciously or subconsciously, that these traits prevent you from being a good engineer. It is my deepest hope that this company can be a place that is kind, smart, and creative. I'm just done fighting for it when very few other people seem to care.”

Her email, unreported until now, exploded like a grenade when it landed in the inboxes of her roughly 1,300 engineering department colleagues. It was widely talked about at the company for weeks, according to interviews with nearly two dozen current and former Snap employees who spoke to Cheddar on the condition of anonymity.

For many inside Snap, the email crystallized longstanding cultural and diversity issues that have plagued the Snapchat maker, as well as many of its tech industry peers. Lubetich's parting words also provide outsiders with a window into a prominent and secretive public company grappling with its past and working to secure its future.

After Cheddar obtained Lubetich’s email and approached her about it, she agreed to speak on the record about her experience at Snap and why she wrote what she did.

“It was definitely something that I’d been stewing on for awhile,” she said, five months after leaving Snap. “I’d been unhappy and frustrated with the internal response to me bringing any issues to HR. When I was leaving, I was like, ‘No holds barred, I’m leaving. I can kind of say anything I want. Because if people are upset, I’m already leaving.’”

Snap’s senior vice president of engineering, Jerry Hunter, said in an email to Cheddar that he appreciated Lubetich speaking up.

“We’ve worked hard to make Snap a place where everyone feels respected and everyone can grow, he said. “I’m excited about the progress that we have made this year, but know that we certainly have more work to do.”

A ‘pervading sexist vibe’

For a party last summer in an airport hangar in Santa Monica, California, Snap hired scantily clad women in costumes resembling Snapchat’s popular deer filter to pass out appetizers and pose for photos, current and former employees said.

Company co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy attended the party, celebrating Snap’s sixth anniversary, and it was one of several episodes that employees said raised their concern about Snap’s culture.

Snap’s vice president of communications, Mary Ritti, said in an email to Cheddar that Spiegel later “reported feeling uncomfortable” about the models at the party.

“The intent was for these three performers to represent the deer lens — but it was a mistake and hasn’t happened since,” said Ritti, who reports to Spiegel and runs the internal events team that organized the party.

Lubetich said she had specific concerns about Snap’s former senior vice president of engineering, Tim Sehn, who left the company the same month she did, during the rollout of Snapchat’s sweeping app redesign.

On one occasion, Lubetich said she overheard Sehn make a penis enlargement joke while discussing a Snapchat photo manipulation filter with another male colleague. On another occasion, she reported him to human resources for jokingly using the word “retarded” during a department meeting. A member of HR discussed both episodes with Sehn privately, according to copies of emails shown to Cheddar. But Lubetich said that he never apologized to her or, to her knowledge, any other employees.

Some of Sehn’s behavior contributed to what Lubetich said was a “pervading sexist vibe” at the company.

“I think all of the negative things that happened to me and were said to me while I was there fueled this continuously burning fire of frustration and anger,” she said.

Sehn said in an email to Cheddar that he met with members of HR about both incidents, and received “timely, constructive feedback.”

“I sincerely apologize if I offended anyone with my choice of words or an off-color joke,” he added.

Sehn said he was taking a break from the tech industry, and thanked Lubetich for “holding me accountable to my behavior.”

“I always tried to make Snap engineering as inclusive a place to build software as possible,” he continued. “I understand how these incidents could undermine that hard work in a silly instant. I am by no means perfect but the feedback helped me grow.”

Lubetich raised other issues about diversity and inclusion with Snap’s HR department after an all-hands meeting last September when she questioned why all eight of the speakers representing different departments across the company were all white men.

Jerry Hunter, who had been vice president of core engineering and took over the engineering department after Sehn left, told Lubetich that “he didn’t realize” how the meeting could appear, she recalled.

Lubetich joined Snap’s San Francisco office in 2016, after working at Google, and regularly visited the company’s headquarters in Venice, Calif. She was the first woman in an office of roughly 20 engineers when she started. By the time she left, the San Francisco office had grown to more than 100 employees, including close to two dozen women.

During her tenure, Lubetich observed other incidents inside Snap that she said contributed to a “toxic” workplace culture. Though she didn’t report them to HR, Lubetich told Cheddar she witnessed overly macho competitions and male-dominated turf wars between managers and their departments that one of her colleagues told her “was a dick-measuring contest.”

She witnessed male coworkers boasting that they took only a couple of days off when their children were born and all-male push-up competitions in the office. She said she overheard male colleagues referring to a co-ed soccer league for employees as “boys’ night,” and there were hot tub parties after work where alcohol flowed freely.

Snap provides up to eight weeks of flexible, paid paternity leave, according to Ritti, Snap’s VP of communications. She said the average paternity leave taken at the company is more than four weeks.

“Within just the last six months we’ve fully reorganized our engineering department, established clear priorities, formalized a mentorship program, instituted a fairer promotion process, and assigned new and more diverse leadership who are also fully accountable to their teams,” Ritti said.

Coming to grips with diversity

Even as Snap tries to improve its culture, the company has struggled to retain women in senior HR roles.

A couple of weeks before she left Snap, Lubetich met with the company’s new vice president of human resources, Kathy Mandato. Lubetich said they talked for a couple of hours, and she remembered Mandato ending the conversation by assuring her that Snap would fix the cultural issues they discussed.

A few weeks later, Mandato left after only five months on the job. She was the third woman to leave after leading Snap’s HR department for less than a year. Mandato didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, and Snap declined to say why she left.

Unlike many of its tech-industry peers, Snap has not publicly released numbers about the diversity of its workforce, nor would the company share its full diversity numbers when asked by Cheddar.

But Snap did share with Cheddar that 13 percent of its technology-related roles are filled by women, and 22 percent of its directors and more senior managers are women. Five of the more than two dozen vice presidents and above are women. Snap’s seven-person board includes one woman.

Snap’s struggle to achieve both gender and racial diversity isn’t a unique challenge in the tech industry. The representations of racial minorities and women are often even lower at the senior leadership level of most tech companies.

“They’re going to be just as bad as any other tech company,” Lubetich said of Snap’s diversity numbers. “At least releasing them shows you’re willing to own up to how bad it is. People just haven’t put that pressure on Snap.”

Snap has mostly avoided the same kind of external pressure to diversify its ranks as other tech giants like Facebook and Uber. But in 2016, the app maker did come under fire for two of its animated face filters: one that depicted an East Asian character with squinting eyes and another of the singer Bob Marley that sparked outrage, with some calling it digital “blackface”.

The company began official efforts to diversify its workforce in late 2015 when it hired recruiter Jarvis Sam, who left Snap in April to join Nike. Sam didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ritti said that the company has always employed three to six people focused on diversity and inclusion and that it is interviewing candidates to replace Sam. She also said that the company began offering unconscious bias training for employees last year and has since made it mandatory for the entire company.

Snap confirmed to Cheddar that it made its diversity numbers internally available to employees for the first time in early 2017 and provided an update to employees on its efforts a few months ago.

In that February 2018 internal update for employees, which Snap shared with Cheddar, Jarvis Sam wrote that the company had achieved “modest gains in the percentage of women and underrepresented people of color holding leadership positions or working in tech roles” since early 2017. He also said that the company had hired an external firm to “conduct a rigorous review of our gender pay equity.”

Shortly after Lubetich sent her email to the engineering department on her last day, Jerry Hunter, then the vice president of core engineering, responded to the message thread.

He said he and members of Snap’s Women in Engineering group “are committed to making Snapchat an even more inclusive place,” according to a copy of his email obtained by Cheddar.

“I’d also like everyone on this thread to understand that I take inclusion at Snapchat very seriously,” he wrote. “I know many of you are doing work to make Snap better.”

Combatting low morale

Snap is facing its most trying period in the company’s nearly seven-year history. It has failed to meet Wall Street’s expectations for growth amid fierce competition from Facebook, and its stock is trading roughly 50 percent below its high from over a year ago, just after its public offering in March 2017.

That external pressure has been compounded by internal criticism of its widely panned app redesign, multiple rounds of layoffs, and upheaval within top management, former and current employees said.

The company has maintained a thick veil of secrecy that has frustrated employees. Teams at Snap operate on a need-to-know basis, meaning that information is not freely shared across the organization. Employees have shared “Game of Thrones” memes with each other to illustrate turf wars between different managers and their teams.

Earlier this year, Snap’s general counsel threatened to sue or press charges against would-be leakers, echoing threats that Apple has made to clamp down on the leaking of information it would rather keep quiet.

Spiegel, the co-founder and CEO who is Snap’s majority shareholder, has fostered a top-down management culture and surrounded himself with like-minded senior leaders, according to several former and current employees.

One controversial member of that leadership team is Snap’s vice president of people and global security, Jason Halbert, who oversees Snap’s HR department.

Late last year, Snap’s HR reportedly received multiple complaints from employees that Halbert made inappropriate comments to colleagues, according to an article published by The Information in December. The article said Snap had hired an outside law firm to investigate the complaints about his comments, including stories about how he “used sexual fantasies to help him meditate, which brought him to orgasm.”

After the article was published, Halbert quietly began reporting to the company’s chief strategy officer, Imran Khan, not Spiegel directly, according to two people familiar with the matter. Other Snap executives have been moved out from under Spiegel after falling out of his favor, the people said. Snap confirmed that Halbert now reports to Khan instead of Spiegel but declined to comment further.

Aside from issues with senior leadership and culturally ingrained secrecy, Snap’s financial pressures have weighed on its rank and file in recent months, current and former employees said.

Many inside the company said they became disillusioned with the optics of Spiegel, 27, receiving $638 million for taking the company public last year, the largest payout of any American executive in 2017, while his employees failed to receive cash bonuses because the company missed performance targets.

Spiegel, who rarely held company-wide meetings, has begun to communicate more in recent months, current and former employees said. In a letter to employees in March, Spiegel said that he wanted the company to “contribute to human progress,” create a more inclusive culture, and be more transparent, according to people who saw the letter.

He holds all-hands meetings once a month at 8 am. At a company meeting in March, after layoffs hit the engineering department, Spiegel said that engineers should build a platform for internal communication if they think it’s a problem and that employees should email him personally if they have issues with their managers, people who attended the meeting said.

When asked during the meeting if he thought Snap had a morale problem, Spiegel said that Snap “may not be the right company for employees who don’t want to work hard, or who aren’t passionate about what they are building,” recalled Ritti, Snap’s spokesperson.

Spiegel has set an ambitious goal to become profitable by the end of 2018, a target some people close to the company said won’t be possible without significant cost-cutting. The negative response to Snapchat’s recent redesign could also lead to slowed growth in revenue and users, they said.

To address waning morale, Snap hired a company called Humu to conduct an anonymous survey of employees a few months ago, according to people familiar with the survey. It asked employees to indicate whether Snap’s policies and practices “are designed with employees’ best interests in mind,” and if “Snap takes action on employee feedback.” Snap also hired a consulting firm to conduct interviews with employees about the company’s culture, the people said.

According to people who saw the survey results, 80 percent of employees reported that they were happy working at Snap.

Snap confirmed the survey results and that the company hired an outside firm, “on our own accord as part of a listening strategy to hold a mirror up to Snap,” said Ritti. She said that the survey and interviews were led by Halbert, the VP of people and global security. For Lubetich, who now works for a women-only fitness club called The Assembly in San Francisco, speaking publicly about her experience at Snap outweighed the risk of angering her former colleagues or potentially hurting her future career prospects.

“A lot of people I met there seemed very afraid when they felt like speaking out or disagreeing with things,” she told Cheddar. “I think it starts with the people who are currently there caring. Nothing is going to change unless people actually care.”


The emails

Here is the full memo Lubetich sent to Snap’s engineering department on November 10:

The time for my (and I guess Tim's) departure is near, so I wanted to send some reminders.

An engineer can be Kind Compassionate Collaborative Outgoing, extroverted Loving, warm, friendly A person who takes more than 2 days off when their child is born A person who isn't straight, or doesn't want to get married and have kids A person who doesn't drink Red Bull or alcohol A person who admits that they're wrong A person who loves Council A person of color A woman

It's fine if this list doesn't describe you. But it's not fine if you think, consciously or subconsciously, that these traits prevent you from being a good engineer.

It is my deepest hope that this company can be a place that is kind, smart, and creative. I'm just done fighting for it when very few other people seem to care.

All the best for snap,

Shannon

And here is the full response from senior engineering vice president Jerry Hunter, which was sent on the same day:

Shannon,

Thank you for sending this note. I’m glad I had a chance to meet with you recently and what we had a chance to discuss Snapchat. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to spend more time together.

I mentioned that I participate in a Women in Engineering group. The leaders in that group and I are committed to making Snapchat an even more inclusive place and I’m sorry that you won’t be there to add your voice to our journey. But I know you’ll be there in spirit. And I wish you the best of luck!

I’d also like everyone on this thread to understand that I take inclusion at Snapchat very seriously. I know many of you are doing work to make Snap better. If you are interested in learning more about what we are doing, let us know. I and the leaders in the Women in Engineering group would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Thanks