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Netflix workplace culture often 'ruthless, demoralizing,' WSJ reports

Netflix's take on workplace culture has been celebrated in Silicon Valley. But a story by The Wall Street Journal tells a grim tale.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at the company's Australian launch.

Claire Reilly/CNET

Netflix's workplace culture, at its worst, can be "ruthless, demoralizing and transparent to the point of dysfunctional," according to a Thursday report by The Wall Street Journal. 

It's a surprising look inside the media giant. Unlike other tech companies, such as Amazon, that've been the subject of bruising exposés about workplace culture, Netflix has long been celebrated in Silicon Valley for its cultural principles. CEO Reed Hastings is even writing a book about it

In an emailed statement, Netflix said it believes "strongly in maintaining a high performance culture and giving people the freedom to do their best work." 

"Fewer controls and greater accountability enable our employees to thrive, making smarter, more creative decisions, which means even better entertainment for our members," the statement said. "While we believe parts of this piece do not reflect how most employees experience Netflix, we're constantly working to learn and improve."

The article includes assertions that Netflix's "keeper test" -- the idea that a manager should keep only the workers he or she would fight to keep -- serves as a front for ordinary workplace politics and that some managers recount feeling pressure "to fire people or risk looking soft." The report recounts anecdotes of employees coming to work with a daily fear of being fired, and being discouraged from showing support for exiting workers because it isn't the "Netflix way." 

For years, Netflix's culture has been praised by others in the tech industry. Its "culture deck," a long manifesto outlining the principles of how to treat employees, was published on Slideshare in 2009 and viewed millions of times. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, has said it "may well be the most important document ever to come out of the Valley." 

Netflix updated its cultural principles last year in a long online document that lives on its jobs page. The document's core tenets include the company keeping "only our highly effective people" and encouraging employees to be "extraordinarily candid with each other."

The Journal's report comes after Netflix fired its chief communications officer in June for using a racial slur at least twice in meetings with workers. That incident and how it was handled were key anecdotes in the Journal's reporting. 

Among the story's other assertions: 

  • Netflix's vice president of publicity for original series, Karen Barragan, told a gathered group of Netflix PR executives that it was "good" they came into work every day fearing they'd be fired. "Because fear drives you," she told them, according to people familiar with the discussion. Barragan later told the paper that she didn't make that remark. 
  • A former employee recalled watching a woman cry as she packed her belongings after she'd been fired, while the rest of her team shied away because supporting her might "put a target on their back," the ex-employee said. 
  • A Korean former employee from Netflix's Singapore office said the company's culture at times reminded her of North Korea, where mothers are made to publicly criticize their sons. 
  • When a former public-relations manager in Singapore asked co-workers about chipping in to help a receptionist who was fired during Chinese New Year, human resources officials told her such a collection wasn't the "Netflix way," according to people familiar with the incident.

First published Oct. 25, 1:13 p.m. PT.
Updates, 1:51 and 3:05 p.m.:
To include more details from the Journal report. 

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