Module: Tech Workplace Culture
The following learning module is to be inserted in any sort of Computer Science course with students who may be interested in entering the tech industry. This lesson would be particularly useful in a Computing Ethics course or a senior seminar. The module contains one unit with two “bites” or lessons.
This module explores the challenges and nuances to fostering a virtuous, positive workplace culture in the tech industry. The module is comprised of two lessons, one that covers the process of establishing and maintaining a healthy workplace culture and one that covers avenues of changing a toxic culture. Each lesson includes case studies to offer real life examples of the material.
Module Learning Outcomes
Students will be expected to:
- Consider challenges of establishing a conscientious workplace culture that are specific to the tech industry
- Discuss issues prevalent in toxic workplaces such as sexual harassment, gender/racial discrimination, and abuse of power
- Examine real world cases of unhealthy workplace culture and compare and contrast instances of employee/employer reaction
- Brainstorm ways to combat a negative company culture
Bite 1: Creation of Tech Workplace Culture
Exploring the various components of establishing a tech company’s culture and the subsequent effects on employee well-being
Where to insert in Computing Ethics course syllabus and class schedule/plan:
In an Ethics related course, this lesson could be inserted towards the end of the curriculum, before or after Emerging Tech.
Student Learning Goals:
- Students will demonstrate engaged reading and analization of the assigned readings.
- Students will explore examples of positive and negative workplace behavior in professional settings in general, then discuss why these issues might be particularly prevalent in the tech industry.
- Students will reflect on what surprised them about the articles given the importance of establishing a healthy workplace culture and the challenges specific to the tech industry.
Articles to read before Bite 1:
- Watkins, Michael. “What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care?” Harvard Business Review, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/05/what-is-organizational-culture.
- Bereznak, Alyssa. “The Workplace That Susan Fowler Wrought.” The Ringer, 2018, https://www.theringer.com/tech/2018/2/21/17029442/susan-fowler-memo-tech-industry-one-year-later
- Rangarajan, Sinduja. “Here’s the Clearest Picture of Silicon Valley’s Diversity yet: It’s Bad. But Some Companies Are Doing Less Bad.” Reveal, 2018, https://www.revealnews.org/article/heres-the-clearest-picture-of-silicon-valleys-diversity-yet/
- Webb, Kevin. “Riot Games Lawsuit Alleges Sexism, Discrimination, and Bro-Culture.” Business Insider, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/riot-games-sexism-discrimination-lawsuit-2018-11.
- Fowler, Susan. “I Wrote the Uber Memo. This Is How to End Sexual Harassment.” The New York Times, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/12/opinion/metoo-susan-fowler-forced-arbitration.html
- Rodriguez, Salvador. “Inside Facebook’s ‘cult-like’ Workplace, Where Dissent Is Discouraged and Employees Pretend to Be Happy All the Time.” CNBC, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/08/facebook-culture-cult-performance-review-process-blamed.html
- Assign academic readings and relevant/recent media stories to offer an idea of the scale and effects of an unhealthy tech workplace culture. In class, ask students what they found surprising or unsurprising from the articles, and why.
- Ask students to individually write down distinguishing qualities of a positive and a negative workplace environment. Share the responses as a class, and discuss the consequences of a negative culture.
- Ask students to write down 5 tech companies they think of as having “healthy” workplace cultures and 5 they think of as having “unhealthy” cultures given their own knowledge.
- Break into small groups (3-5 people). Ask to students share their lists with each other and discuss why they chose the companies for each category.
- Discuss as a class or in small groups some traits, policies, practices, or procedures that might indicate a positive workplace environment versus an negative one.
- Discuss in small groups the similarities and differences between the Uber and Riot Games case studies.
Potential Group Discussion Questions:
- Who is most responsible for establishing and influencing a company workplace culture?
- What makes a tech company’s workplace culture distinct from that of other industries?
- Why might it be difficult to evaluate a company culture from the outside?
- Should all companies have a Chief Diversity Officer and/or Chief Ethics Officer?
- How might an entry-level employee at a tech company impact as well as be impacted by a toxic workplace culture?
Potential Homework Assignment: Entrepreneurial Scenario
You are a tech entrepreneur who has just been promised VC funding which will allow you to fully launch and scale your software company (which will take it from 4 employees to 30). Given the last few years of very public controversial issues at tech companies, your investors want to make sure they are investing in a tech company that will treat its customers and employees with respect. You must deliver a written plan (250-500 words) to your investors outlining at least one thing you will do to establish and foster a healthy workplace environment.
Bite 2: Changing Toxic Workplace Culture
Student Learning Goals:
- Students will demonstrate engaged critical reading of the assigned articles.
- Students will explore cases of toxic workplace culture and the steps employees have
taken to protest this culture, from lawsuits to employee walkouts.
- Students will reflect on the challenges of changing a toxic workplace culture, and compare and contrast the effectiveness of the different avenues of doing so.
- Students will consider why tech companies may face heightened challenges when attempting to correct negative workplace culture.
Articles to be read before Bite 2:
- Litt, Michael. “I Accidentally Built A Brogrammer Culture. Now We’re Undoing It.” Fast Company, 2018,
- Relihan, Tom. “Fixing a Toxic Work Culture: Guarding against the ‘Dark Triad.’” MIT Sloan School of Management, 2019, https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/fixing-a-toxic-work-culture-guarding-against-dark-triad
- Wakabayashi, Daisuke, et al. “Google Walkout: Employees Stage Protest Over Handling of Sexual Harassment.” The New York Times, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/technology/google-walkout-sexual-harassment.html
- Youn, Soo. “Google Walkout Organizers Hold Sit-in to Protest Alleged Retaliation.” ABC News, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/google-walkout-organizers-hold-sit-protest-alleged-retaliation/story?id=62752641
- Isaac, Mike. “Uber Founder Travis Kalanick Resigns as C.E.O.” The New York Times, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/technology/uber-ceo-travis-kalanick.html
- Break into small groups and discuss the Google Walkout Case Study (NYTimes and ABC News articles). Do you agree with the employees’ actions? Do you agree with Google’s response? Should the employer have a greater loyalty to the employee or vice versa?
- Discuss in groups the discrepancy between many tech companies’ projected workplace cultures and their real cultures. Consider why the extravagant perks, benefits, and salaries offered by these companies might prevent employees’ from speaking out against or leaving a toxic workplace environment.
- Compare and contrast the aftermath of Susan Fowler’s blog post at Uber with that of the Google Walkout for Real Change. Discuss other examples that come to mind of whistleblowing or employee protests.
Potential Discussion Questions for Small Groups:
- How does the demand for tech skills influence the power tech employees have in the labor market? How does this impact the agency they have in their ability to ignite change at their companies?
- Are tech companies held to a higher standard of ethics and employee treatment than other industries? Why or why not?
- Who carries the burden of changing and influencing a toxic company culture – the company leadership or the lower level employees?
- What are some ways that entry level tech laborers can enforce a negative tech company workplace culture? What are some ways in which they can help change or counteract negative culture?