How to determine if and when negative press is a red flag, how and if it will affect your day-to-day role, future job prospects, and sense of self.
As regulators scramble to draft new legislation to regulate the internet, data privacy, and the spread of fake news, tech companies routinely find themselves embroiled in controversy. From inscrutable “black box” algorithms that triage items in our newsfeeds and decide who is invited for a job interview, admitted to college, or approved for a mortgage, to social media giants being accused of not doing enough to moderate political conspiracy theories, there are many reasons why tech companies often find themselves in legal crosshairs.
In 2018, computer science majors started saying they didn’t want to work at Facebook because of ongoing controversies surrounding the dissemination of fake news, data privacy, and lack of content moderation in non-Anglophone markets.
When is bad press a sign that you should steer clear of a potential employer? Big tech companies are routinely sued--at the time of writing, Facebook and Google are facing a series of antitrust lawsuits by the federal government, while Apple and Amazon are fielding ongoing government probes. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley workers are growing increasingly outspoken about unscrupulous business practices.
However, big tech is still considered one of the most desirable employers for its name recognition, employee benefits, and reputation for hiring the cream of the crop. Glassdoor ranked Google, Microsoft and Facebook #6, #9, and #11 respectively in its list of Best Places to Work 2021.
Here are 5 steps you can take when considering how serious the negative press is that's surrounding your future employer.
When researching your potential employer, don’t just rely on the corporate website or what recruiters tell you. Sometimes, companies don’t live up to their stated values.
Some questions to ask:
Aim to find out as much as you can about the company values, its products, environmental impact, future outlook, and involvement in the community.
A study found that companies that pursue a socially responsible agenda are in fact more likely to behave in socially irresponsible ways. This is especially true when companies have CEOs that are extremely vocal about their ideals.
Perhaps you identify as transgender, LGBTQ, non-gender-conforming, or you’re a parent who needs a flexible work schedule. Some companies will be supportive; others will not.
Try to gauge employee sentiment on Quora, Reddit, Blind, Fishbowl, and other forums where current and former employees can speak freely. Fishbowl, a social network that was recently acquired by Glassdoor, is especially useful for tech workers. The company claims that 40% or more of people at Netflix, Apple, JP Morgan Chase, and Google maintain a presence on the Fishbowl app.
Given that users can post comments semi-anonymously, the app has a reputation for being a place for embittered employees to spread vitriol. (Beware that companies also use Fishbowl to monitor employee morale, just like HR departments are known to snoop on Glassdoor and other employee review sites).
Besides doing cold outreach on LinkedIn, you can use Lunchclub, an AI platform that facilitates 1:1 video meetings, to connect with people who are actively searching for networking opportunities. Once you feel comfortable with this person, you can gently ask questions like, “How do you feel about the company’s values?” or “Do you intend to stay at the company long-term?” and “Do you believe in the company’s mission?”
Is this the first controversy of its kind, or does the company have a reputation for getting a slap on the wrist, paying a settlement, and then reoffending in the next fiscal year?
For example, Apple’s decision not to include free charging adapters and wired earphones with its new iPhone 12 could be perceived as a blatant cash grab, but the company defended the decision as a drive towards reducing package waste, reasoning that most iPhone buyers already own other Apple products with charging adapters.
Following employee protests, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on providing its facial recognition software to police departments, calling on Congress to regulate the use of controversial technology by the police.
However, if a company has a reputation for mistreating its employees, that’s a red flag. Issues with company culture will permeate your experience on the job. Reports of sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of age, race, or sexual orientation, or rampant employee burnout are cause for concern.
Don’t join a company in the hopes of fixing it, unless you are specifically hired to do so. That said:
Consider your role
How close will you be to the controversy in question? Will you be directly affiliated with the product or service you find unethical?
For example, not everyone at Facebook builds algorithms for NewsFeed or Instagram--currently the subject of an ongoing probe by Congress. There are jobs on other, less fraught product teams such as Oculus, Whatsapp, and Portal. Instead of disavowing a company altogether, consider roles on different teams.
Weigh the pros and cons
No employer is perfect, and every job offer represents a tradeoff. Where one company offers a higher salary (and longer working hours) another might extend more opportunities for growth with slightly lower pay.
There are times in your career when you have to make hard choices because you can’t get everything you want. The key is to know what you're looking for and keep striving to find a job that helps you reach your long-term goals.
Some of the most controversial companies in tech also have the most name recognition. Having a FAANG on your resume can open doors for you. The average employee tenure in the tech industry is three years, and there is plenty of mobility. It’s okay to view your current job as a stepping stone to another one.
FAANG companies also tend to value their engineers more than non-SaaS companies because engineers generate revenue rather than being a cost center.
For example, former employees at Huawei, which was recently banned in the US for engaging in corporate espionage and intellectual property theft, have had no trouble landing jobs elsewhere. However, if you are seeking a government job that requires security clearance, the odds may be stacked against you.
Finally, bear in mind that sometimes a PR crisis can come out of nowhere and it's not up to you to anticipate every possible worst-case scenario.
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