Away Scandal: Inside Journalist's Investigation into Luggage Start-Up's 'Toxic Workplace Environment'
Away, a popular luggage company, was founded by two female CEOs with the message of inclusivity and accessibility in mind. Ever since its launch in 2015, the brand’s image was shaped by celebrities and influencers taking glamorous vacations with the specialty suitcase, which is known for its USB outlet that can charge a phone on the go.
But some former employees at the start-up have spoken out, saying things aren’t quite what they appear.
Journalist Zoe Schiffer, who covers tech and democracy at The Verge, said she uncovered what some former employees are calling a “toxic workplace environment,” filled with long hours, harsh criticisms and public ousting. She spoke with InsideEdition.com amid the resignation of Away’s CEO Steph Korey, who will continue with the company as executive chairman of the Board of Directors.
"At a minimum, it's symbolically important that executives like Korey realize that treating employees poorly has real, tangible implications," Schiffer said. "But of course, we have to wait and see whether or not the culture at the company actually changes. I think a lot of people are hoping [the company] will now treat workers with more respect.”
Schiffer said her coverage of the alleged issue was borne out of an unrelated story focused on workplace bullying.
“After that came out, I got an email from a source and she said, ‘Have you heard of Away? The situation is a lot worse here,’” she said. “And suddenly the story started to really, really grow and there were a bunch of different angles and a bunch of different teams that had very similar complaints. So immediately I saw that there was a pattern, and that people had a ton of documentation.”
An anonymous reader reached out to journalist Zoe Schiffer about her own experience with workplace bullying at Away. (Zoe Schiffer, The Verge)
At least a dozen former employees in various departments of Away came forward in the weeks following that initial September email.
“It was a mix of customer experience managers and associates, people who have been at the organization for years, it was people on the legal team who had their own experience of what they said was a toxic environment," Schiffer said. "It was people on the branded marketing team whose mandate was to put forth this image of this empowering company, when in reality their experience at the company was that it wasn't any of those things.”
As Schiffer thought over how she could pull together a story on the alleged bullying and abuse, she realized most of the proof was in writing, over a popular workplace instant messaging program Slack.
“Suddenly I got airdropped to me just tons and tons and tons of screenshots of what this actually looked like in the office," she said. "Immediately that was when I knew, this is going to be a big story."
Schiffer said the aspects of alleged workplace abuse could be broken down into several points.
Claims of Overworked Employees
"The first point is that employees at Away are being pushed to the breaking point," Schiffer said. "They're being asked to work incredibly long hours, 15-16 hour days. A lot of the time, they're working for pretty low pay."
Former employees told Schiffer their starting salary averaged about $40,000 a year, which they said was low when factoring in the cost of living in New York City, where the company is headquartered, and the number of hours most employees were expected to put in without overtime. "And, they were having things like work from home flexibility and paid time off taken away if they don't meet certain metrics," Schiffer said.
Feedback over a Public Slack Channel
Former employees told Schiffer that management was encouraged to deliver harsh feedback and that such feedback was mandated to be given "on public Slack channels," she said. "Away doesn't let their employees email each other; they're supposed to keep direct messaging at an absolute minimum."
The alleged policy was reportedly intended to promote inclusivity and transparency, keeping in line with the company's plans to do away with closed-door meetings some believed intentionally left out employees of marginalized cultural groups. In reality, "it turned feedback into a spectator sport almost, where people would just watch as someone was eviscerated in front of the rest of the company," Schiffer said.
"You'd hear the [former] CEO Steph Korey typing and you could hear something bad would happen. You could hear it and the whole office would tense up," Schiffer continued. "[Employees would think] 'Okay, who is she going to go into next?' They would see message after message coming in, where she was nitpicking a particular mistake [someone] made and they'd be like, 'Is that person OK?' It feels really bad.
"Perhaps it made things more transparent, but at what cost?" Schiffer said.
POC Employees Allegedly Fired Over 'Racist Comments'
In one instance, several employees found communicating with each other away from management's watchful eye – and in some instances, to speak critically about higher ups – were summarily dismissed, employees told Schiffer.
"The LGBTQ folks and the people of color had formed a private Slack channel to kind of air some of their grievances and talk about the difficult environment," Schiffer said. "There were things in the grey area, to be clear. There were definitely things that, you know, should you say that at work? I don't know."
The Slack channel, named "#Hot-Topics," saw conversations ranging from things employees said they heard around the office they found problematic to pop culture updates, from frustrating customer experiences to "jokes [poking fun at the] 'classic, straight white man LOL,'" Schiffer said.
It was "just a place to talk about a difficult work day," Schiffer continued.
But when executives caught wind of the Slack channel, six employees were fired "specifically because they'd made racist comments," Schiffer was told by those former employees.
"Some of the employees felt like that was a pretty tough framing [of their comments]," she said. "One of the former employees who spoke out on Twitter said ... that her understanding of racism was that it was different for a person of color to make a light-hearted joke about a straight, white boss, than perhaps [for] a straight white boss to make a similar joke about her, because he was in the majority and she was not.
"I think that's kind of it," Schiffer said. "It doesn't make any of it right, per se, but I think we have to realize that it's quite different, when you're a historically marginalized group, to form an ally group at work."
Following the release of Schiffer's report, additional employees, both former and current, have come forward with their own stories.
"I've gotten about 30 more people who I didn't speak to the first time who have reached out to me," she said. "And people are actually coming forward on Twitter and saying, 'This is accurate. This was my experience,' and they're actually putting their names out there for the first time, which is a really big change."
Some consumers are also taking to Twitter to show their support for the employees. Some are also cancelling or returning recently placed orders in solidarity.
I want to return my away luggage but I’m terrified CEO will force customer support team to miss Christmas again.... https://t.co/8Q18YYwae4— Darren Lachtman (@dlach5) December 5, 2019
Before Korey stepped down, she apologized for how she treated employees, putting out a lengthy statement on Twitter saying: "I was appalled and embarrassed reading [the messages] myself. I'm not proud of my behavior in those moments and I'm sincerely sorry for what I said and how I said it. It was wrong. Plain and simple."
She also mentioned in the policy that they have changed their paid time off policies and hired "more than 100 new team members to better divide workloads."
But Schiffer said she and her sources were not mollified by Korey's actions. "It's not like my story was the first time executives had heard employees had some of these feelings. It was just the first time the public pressure was such they couldn't really ignore them," she said. "Time will tell if they'll actually be able to make such a big cultural shift, that they're able to pay employees better and give them time off, and value their well-being over growth at all costs."
In the wake of Korey's stepping down, Away appointed Lululemon COO Stuart Haselden as CEO.
"Over the past eight months, I led the recruiting process that led us to bringing on Stuart, and I’m so thrilled for him to join the company as Away’s CEO," Korey said through spokesperson for Away to InsideEdition.com. "Stuart is a deeply experienced leader and operator who will be transformative for Away’s next phase of growth. I am looking forward to stepping into my new role as executive chairman.”
Away did not respond to InsideEdition.com's request for further comment regarding Schiffer's reporting on the issues employees raised.
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