When Your Boss Doesn’t Care About Doing the Right Thing
Don’t let unethical leadership define the limits of your work
“Anyone who doesn’t understand how free trials work is a fucking idiot. I’m sorry, but have they used the internet?”
I was presenting months of brand research to the CEO of a company I no longer work for. (We’ll get there.) Customers, employees, and members of our target market all had good things to say about our product but respondents in every category gave us low ratings on trustworthiness. Why? Our heavily promoted “free” offerings were only available as part of a short trial that required a credit card and auto-renewed.
Our business’s reliance on forced continuity was shitty and unethical, in my opinion, but that didn’t seem like a great way to open the meeting. So instead, I talked about it from the perspective of the brand and business.
We could build a better brand and stronger, more valuable customer relationships if we explored more transparent ways of offering — or at least communicating — our trial. By focusing on free products at the top of our acquisition funnel, we were attracting the wrong type of customer and missing an opportunity to communicate the value we offer once the trial is up.
I had expected resistance but not the full-blown meltdown I witnessed. Not only were customers who felt deceived “morons,” according to my CEO, but most were trying to scam us for free services. Our real customers were too important to dispute a $40 charge on their credit card if they forgot to cancel their trial. Their time — like his — was too valuable. Thus, the research I was desperately trying to share was a waste of time.
My design director assured me after the meeting that we would keep at it. The CEO had grown over the years and she had faith he’d continue to do so. “He likes to argue,” she said. So I kept at it, believing that with enough hard work, evidence, and peer support, I could make a difference.
Good designers need to be opinionated. They need to have a voice in the company. That voice needs to speak on behalf of the user.
In hindsight, that CEO wasn’t just being defensive. He was telling me the limits of the work I could do. I could make things look better but I could not actually make them be better. And if I didn’t like it, I was a “fucking idiot.”
I should have listened then because months later, he decided, during a presentation of design work, that I was the idiot. He berated me for not immediately agreeing with his executive feedback. When I tried to respond, he cut me off. I was going to “let [him] finish or leave.” I left the meeting and the company.
As I left the room, I could hear him telling the international team who’d witnessed me flip a proverbial table, “It’s for the best.” This time, he and I agreed.
I was sure I had done the right thing by standing up for myself in that moment, but I also felt defeated. I am a professional designer who has dealt with difficult clients, challenging projects, tight timelines, and bigger misunderstandings; but I couldn’t make this work. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have known better.
Good designers need to be opinionated. They need to have a voice in the company and that voice needs to speak on behalf of the user. None of those things were achievable if I kept working for a CEO who thought all users were morons and talking to them was a waste of time. He had defined the limits of my work.
Across the field, lots of good designers are working for bosses who have no intention of letting them do their jobs well. These bosses have defined the limits of our work. Largely, we have accepted their definition.
Ogilvy CEO John Seifert has defined the limits of his designers’ work. In a meeting with outraged employees, he defended the agency’s work with Customs and Border Protection:
Employee: So I don’t know, so we’ll work with anyone then, is what I’m hearing, and I feel like, I don’t understand for me, and I don’t understand why we can’t pivot.
Seifert: Let me just see if I can help you understand drawing a line — auto companies allow people to die every single year.
He also touted the work they’d done with tobacco companies, the companies behind oil spills, and companies whose products contribute to obesity. All of those issues (and vehicular manslaughter, apparently) are beyond the limits of Ogilvy designers’ work.
When Jack Dorsey responded to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on his platform with a newsworthiness exemption to Twitter’s abuse and harassment policies, he defined the limits of designers’ work on Twitter’s safety team, too.
When Patrick Collison says, “Stripe is a neutral platform,” he’s defined the limits of designers’ work on a product that generates profit by facilitating the sale of “Carlos Maza is a fag” T-shirts and other hate speech-inspired products.
Designers are used to working within constraints. We draw boundaries around our solutions all the time. We call it scoping. And to many designers, what the business will or will not accept ethically is a constraint like any other. But the boundaries employers draw around our ability to do the right thing (and to do it well) can only limit our work if we accept them without question.
The truly good designers in our industry are questioning those limits and pushing against them right now. Sometimes questioning those limits is enough to move them; but many designers are so afraid to have difficult conversations with the people in power, they never get to find out. If you are so afraid of bringing ethical issues to the leadership at your company, what are you doing there?
The boundaries employers draw around our ability to do the right thing can only limit our work if we accept them.
Ask any number of well-meaning and well-compensated designers at Twitter, Amazon, or Facebook, and they’ll tell you they’re working hard on issues of abuse, misinformation, and privacy violations. They’re changing things from the inside. From the outside, I have to ask, “What exactly is changing?”
A year ago, Amazon employees protested the company’s sale of facial recognition software to the U.S. government and police departments. This month, Amazon reported that the software—which misidentified one in five California lawmakers as criminals in a study by the ACLU—can now sense fear. Cool.
Facebook designers wrote in December of 2017 about initiatives to address misinformation; but to this very day, the Trump campaign is running blatantly misleading ads in violation of the company’s own policies on the platform. The problem is not only the intention of designers at Facebook, it’s also the approach. Facebook demotes misinformation but doesn’t remove it or the people who post it. Like Twitter and its Nazis, Facebook has decided misinformation’s presence on the platform is the default, and it’s up to engaged users to report.
If leadership at your company isn’t willing to sacrifice ad dollars, hire sufficient human content moderators, or risk losing Nazi-sympathizing daily active users, that’s a major limit on the solutions you can create as a designer.
These are choices based on the bottom line, not something inherent to the technology. These are business decisions, not natural laws.
For example, in response to its own misinformation problem, Pinterest decided to stop returning results for vaccine-related searches rather than lead its users down an anti-vax rabbit hole.
If your boss refuses to entertain these kinds of solutions—or worse, throws tantrums when you suggest them — you have to weigh what you can realistically change against your complicity in the harm your peers cause while you try.
Maybe you’re close enough to power to affect change. If you are, please keep pushing against the limits that power tries to set for you. But if you find yourself repeatedly pushing a boulder up a hill instead, maybe it’s time to flip a table of your own.
Since upending my last role, I’ve found a team that embraces customers’ perspectives, cares deeply about doing right by them, and works hard to build more inclusive experiences. The problems I’m working on aren’t that different from my last role but I’ve made more progress on them in a few months than I did in almost a year at my old job.
None of these things have become magically easier to do as a designer but my new team is motivated by the challenge and we work under leadership that is open to being challenged. When our efforts fall short, it’s not because the people in charge are sabotaging them.
I can’t tell you there’s one right way to handle these difficult circumstances. What I can tell you is this: When your boss tells you who they are, believe them the first time.