Emotional baggage

Away’s founders sold a vision of travel and inclusion, but former employees say it masked a toxic work environment

Avery felt out of place at Away. Like many of the executives at the popular direct-to-consumer luggage brand, she’d gone to an Ivy League college, worked at a popular startup, and honed an intense work ethic that set her apart from the pack. But the higher-ups, who were almost all white and straight, still never gave her the time of day. “It was very clear who was in the clique,” she says.

Originally, Avery had joined because of the brand’s popularity — the hard-shell suitcases were everywhere: in overheads, luggage carousels, subway ads — but she also wanted to believe in the mission. Away promised a lifestyle of inclusion and nice vacations. It was also founded by two women (one a person of color) who sought to run a globally minded business. “In my mind, it’s a trivial product but the brand is more than just luggage,” Avery says. “It’s about travel.” As the months went by and she got a closer glimpse at the growth and image-obsessed culture, however, she started to feel like the mission was just a smokescreen to get employees to work harder and longer.

Like many fast-growing startups, Away’s workplace is organized around digital communication. It’s how employees talk, plan projects, and get feedback from co-workers and higher-ups. Away used the popular chat app Slack, which has the motto “where work happens.” But of course, being a startup, a lot of other chatter happened there, too.

When a co-worker invited Avery to join a private Slack channel called #Hot-Topics filled with LGBTQ folks and people of color, she was relieved to find that she wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable with Away’s purported mission and company culture. “It was a lot of like, ‘This person did this not-woke thing,’ or ‘Those people did something insensitive,’” she recalls. In other words, it was a safe space where marginalized employees could vent.

It was also against company policy. Away embraced Slack in more ways than one — its co-founder, Jen Rubio, is engaged to its CEO Stewart Butterfield — but it took things further than most startups. Employees were not allowed to email each other, and direct messages were supposed to be used rarely (never about work, and only for small requests, like asking if someone wanted to eat lunch). Private channels were also to be created sparingly and mainly for work-specific reasons, so making channels to, say, commiserate about a tough workday was not encouraged.

The rules had been implemented in the name of transparency, but employees say they created a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance. Once, when a suitcase was sent out with a customer’s incomplete initials stenciled onto the luggage tag, CEO Steph Korey said the person in charge must have been “brain dead” and threatened to take over the project. “Slack bullying is a thing,” explains a former member of the creative team we’ll call Erica*. “In my experience there, it’s extensive and relentless. It wasn’t just co-workers pinning things on other people — it came from the execs.”

Korey was infamous for tearing into people on Slack. “You could hear her typing and you knew something bad was going to happen,” says a former customer experience associate we’ll call Caroline*. Yet while her feedback was almost always sent online, its effects were felt in the real world, often when employees burst into tears.

So when the executive’s name unexpectedly popped into #Hot-Topics the morning of May 16th, 2018, employees knew something was wrong. She’d found out about the channel from Erin Grau, the head of people, who said language in the room had made at least one person uncomfortable. “I thought, Damn, she’s gonna see us talking about some stupid stuff, but whatever,” recalls a former marketing manager named Emily*. She hoped Korey would at least find the conversations funny.

That hope evaporated the next day when Korey began calling people into a room one by one. There, flanked by the company’s head of people and general counsel, she told six people they were being let go. “You’ve been discriminatory,” employees remember her saying. “The stuff you said was hateful, even racist. You no longer have a job at this company.” Emily, who is a person of color, was shocked. “That was jarring — three white people telling me I was racist,” she says.

Korey disputes ever using the terms “racist” and “hate speech,” although multiple sources confirmed these were the words she used.

The situation bruised employee morale, according to leaked Slack logs and interviews The Verge conducted with 14 former workers. But it was consistent with a pattern of behavior from the company’s top leaders.

Employees were asked to work exceedingly long hours and limit their paid time off. Their projects were brutally criticized by executives on public Slack channels. They were reprimanded for not answering messages immediately — even late at night and on weekends.

The cutthroat culture allowed the company to grow at hyperspeed, developing a cult following with celebrities and millennials alike. But it also opened a yawning gap between how Away appears to its customers and what it’s like to actually work there. The result is a brand consumers love, a company culture people fear, and a cadre of former employees who feel burned out and coerced into silence.

“They prey on people who were never cool like me,” Caroline says. “It’s a cult brand, and you get sucked into the cool factor. Because of that, they can manipulate you.”

“Luggage is only the beginning”

Korey and Rubio met in 2011 while working at the trendy direct-to-consumer eyewear company Warby Parker. There, Korey implemented the lessons she’d learned at Bloomingdale’s years before. “The things I learned there about retail markups, markdowns, wholesaling, licensing, and the department store supply chain all later became the very things we would avoid at Warby Parker,” she said in an interview in Fortune.

Their aim was to sell “first-class luggage at a coach price” by cutting out the middleman and marketing directly to consumers. It was a model perfected by brands like Dollar Shave Club, Glossier, and Everlane: direct-to-consumer powerhouses that, through some alchemy of Facebook ads, freckled models, and bold sans serif fonts, had elevated themselves out of their business category to achieve tech company success.

Following this blueprint, Korey and Rubio positioned Away as a travel company, not a luggage brand. “We’re working to create the perfect version of everything people need to travel more seamlessly,” Rubio said in a 2018 interview. “Luggage is only the beginning.”

To make their brand even more aspirational, Away partnered with models and it-girls like Karlie Kloss, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, and Rashida Jones to promote the bags on social media. This was Rubio’s wheelhouse: she’d managed social strategy at Warby Parker and knew how to make Away hyper-relevant.

Korey, for her part, didn’t have to work hard to project an aspirational lifestyle. The CEO grew up in Ohio in a 55,000-square-foot historic mansion with an indoor swimming pool and three dining rooms. She’d gone to boarding school, then landed in Bloomingdale’s executive development program while at Brown University.

But for all of her privilege, no one denied the executive’s fanatical work ethic. Where Rubio’s job seemed to involve glamorous travel and speaking events, and many employees say they never interacted with her, Korey was always in the office. She managed all of the company’s operations and was regularly online past 1AM.

The CEO often vacillated between being funny and relatable to hyper-critical and even cruel. Employees say she swore during interviews, cackled at people’s jokes, and took new hires to lunch, telling stories about her own mistakes. Once, during an interview, a woman remarked that she was drawn to Away because she was a millennial and it was a millennial-friendly product. “I’m a millennial, too,” Korey said. Later, that same employee was told by her manager that Korey had referred to the team as a bunch of “millennial twats.”

Korey was adamant that clear feedback was critical to employees’ growth. She was blunt when she didn’t agree with someone and encouraged managers not to shy away from harsh criticism. Erica, who managed a small team, questioned whether this strategy actually worked. “It didn’t feel like I was helping my direct reports grow,” she says.

When the photo team took suitcases to a shoot in the Hamptons and brought them back banged up and covered in sand, an employee who’d started that week was blamed for the “unacceptable” error and called out publicly on Slack. (The bags had eventually made their way to customers, and executives were furious.) “It could’ve just been a co-worker pulling them aside and saying this isn’t cool,” Erica says. “It felt like they were publicly outing the situation so that everybody could follow along.”

Korey often framed her critiques in terms of Away’s core company values: thoughtful, customer-obsessed, iterative, empowered, accessible, in it together. Empowered employees didn’t schedule time off when things were busy, regardless of how much they’d been working. Customer-obsessed employees did whatever it took to make consumers happy, even if it came at the cost of their own well-being. The framework echoed the tough company culture at Amazon where employees are taught to forget old habits and embrace a new set of ideals.

The intensity prompted employees to form small groups, chatting in texts about the toxic company culture. “Everyone kind of found their tribe and stuck to them because you needed to have allies there if you were gonna stay there,” says Serena*, a marketing manager.

But even this seemed like it could get them in trouble. From the beginning, Korey and Rubio had banned direct messages on Slack for anything related to work. Ostensibly, this was supposed to make the culture more transparent. “Over the course of our careers, Jen and I observed situations where women and underrepresented groups were often excluded from key emails or meetings,” Korey said in a statement to The Verge. “Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesn’t. With email the original author gets to pick who is included in the conversation and whose voices won’t be heard. That’s not the company we want.”

In practice, however, it did the opposite. Transparency seemed like it was just a pretense for Korey to micromanage and exert control. Marginalized employees felt silenced by the cutthroat environment and executives like Korey who used mistakes as an excuse to nitpick. “Steph has the drive and the personality of someone who could be very successful,” Erica says. “She embodies what we all aspire to be. But she does it in a way that’s absolutely not what I want to be.”

Ironically, Korey described Rubio as her “work wife” when the pair had worked at Warby Parker. “What was so nice about the relationship is we could lean on each other to complain every once in a while, like if a project wasn’t going well,” she explained in a podcast interview.

To Avery, this was just more hypocrisy at Away: the founders were allowed to complain to one another in private, but employees were expected to have almost every conversation in public.

“You are joining a movement”

In the summer of 2017, Lauren joined Away as a customer experience associate. She was one year out of college, thrilled at the prospect of working for a brand she’d seen all over Instagram.

At the time, the company had around 50 employees. “The energy was light and supportive,” she recalls. Her salary, which was around $40,000, wasn’t a lot to live on, but it also wasn’t out of the ordinary for someone just starting out in New York City.

Lauren’s job was to answer customer calls and emails, getting the “queue” of customer inquiries down to zero. On a busy day, Lauren and her co-workers answered about 40 phone calls and responded to 100 emails each.

From the beginning, Korey and Rubio were masterful at getting these young employees hyped up about their jobs. “You are joining a movement,” they would say. “Everyone wants to be a part of this.” Lauren and the 12 other associates on customer experience felt lucky, even chosen. They worked long hours and bonded over crazy customer stories, intoxicated by the energy of the company.

Lauren’s manager, Xandie Pasanen, a woman who’d risen through the ranks to lead the customer experience organization, was relentlessly positive and upbeat. When Korey needed the team to stay late, Pasanen would send long Slack messages on her behalf, infusing her sentences with Away’s values. “She would say ‘I’ll be working late tonight — dinner is here if any of you can work beside me. I mean, leave if you have to, but I have to stay,’” Lauren’s teammate Caroline says. “Her messages were long and loving, but they were manipulative. If she didn’t hear from you she’d just contact you directly asking for verbal confirmation you could work.”

As the holidays approached, the team had to work around the clock to keep up with customer demand. In December, Caroline was wrapping up work at 1AM when she saw a Slack message from Pasanen. “Okay everyone! Take a photo with your computer in bed when you get home. Here’s mine!” She was sitting in bed wearing a face mask, still working.

The queue of unanswered customer emails kept growing, and the team was too small to keep up. Lauren and Caroline were working on weekends, often eating dinner around midnight. They told themselves to just keep pushing through to New Year’s Day when they would finally have a day off.

Then, on December 31st, Pasanen sent them a message. “Happy New Years Eve!” she began. She then laid out two scenarios: either they could take the day off as planned, and the team would fall even more behind, or they could each work for six hours and get a month off as a reward.

The full message was 1,217 words.

“I burst into tears,” Caroline says. “I was trying to finish so I could have my first day off in weeks. I was telling my mom, ‘I just need a break and I can’t get one,’ and she was like ‘just say no.’ I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’”

Korey is careful to point out that working on New Year’s had been a choice. “The team decided they’d prefer to work the holiday and get a month off because the team knew this day was really important for keeping the customer experience on track,” she said in an email to The Verge.

Even so, Caroline and her co-workers were suspicious about the executive’s motives. No one had received overtime pay — which, given the hours they were working, seemed questionable — and many suspected the CEO was concerned. “The rumor was she was nervous it wasn’t legal to have us working so much without overtime, so she went overboard giving us time off,” Caroline says. (The company has since changed its policy to pay customer experience associates overtime.)

The team pulled through — many worked from airports or snuck away from planned family outings — and got customer emails under control. But Caroline knew it wasn’t over. She was overworked and underpaid, but something in her wanted to keep going. “I wanted to move closer to work so I could work more, but I couldn’t afford it,” she says.

“It was like having your pants pulled down in front of the company”

The following Thanksgiving, Lila*, a customer experience manager, planned a trip to go see her family in the hopes that, this year, they’d keep up with consumer demand. It was a risky move: Away was rolling out a limited edition line called the Solstice Collection, which Town & Country dubbed “just what you need for holiday travel.”

But the launch was already plagued with problems. The suitcases were arriving at Away’s warehouses with stickers that were difficult to peel off, and workers were almost two weeks late shipping them out. To make matters worse, the operations team wasn’t communicating with customer experience associates about when people could expect their bags to ship. That made it difficult to tell customers when their bags were coming.

On November 20th, 2018, Korey looked at the number of customers waiting for shipments and realized they had a big problem. “I need to know tonight if we’ve reached out to these customers yet,” she wrote at 10PM. “I have seen multiple [customer experience] Managers active on Slack since I asked this question so please just give me an answer.”

The managers explained that they were waiting to reach out to customers until the operations team told them when the bags would actually ship. But Korey was far from satisfied. She asked them to come up with a new plan on how to communicate with customers and present it to her the next day.

Lila asked a direct report to explain the strategy to Korey since she was going to be on the way to the airport. The idea was to expedite shipping on late orders and communicate to customers when they could expect to receive their bags. Lila’s report noted this was going “above and beyond.”

When Korey saw the plan, she was furious. “If we were just going above and beyond we could send them all 10 free suitcases,” she vented in Slack, in front of the entire company. “Or we could send them all 100 free suitcases, that would REALLY be above and beyond.”

The team, near tears, stayed silent. “We just kind of let her rant,” one employee said. Caroline, who was watching the tirade, was shocked. “It was like having your pants pulled down in front of the company and then they just walk away,” she says.

Seeing what was happening on Slack, Lila turned her car around and headed back to the office. There would be no family vacation after all.

“We share the emotional burden”

A few weeks later, Korey asked the customer experience managers to have their associates cancel future travel plans, at least until the holidays were over. Those who’d already booked tickets would be asked if they could work from home. “We were like ‘No, no we’re not gonna do that. That’s not moral,” Caroline says. But she knew she didn’t have a choice.

Caroline was protective of how close her team had become. If one person was forced to stay, the rest were likely to follow suit. “They exploited the fact that we were close,” she says. “They knew we would take a bullet for each other and they just used it. Everyone was crushed. But they weren’t going to leave if their friends stayed.”

The associates tried to keep their spirits high as they worked through the holiday season. At one point, a member of the retail team approached them tentatively and asked why they all seemed so cheerful. “How do you keep up a happy attitude? I see you over here talking and laughing… do Steph and Jen not talk to you like they do everyone else?” a former customer experience manager we’ll call Lindsey* remembers him asking. “We share the emotional burden,” she replied. “We go on walks. We have each other’s back. Do we work really efficiently? Like, 100 percent. But you gotta learn the tricks of the trade.”

By January, the team was completely burnt out and the positivity was starting to wane. “I would leave at nine. I wouldn’t eat until midnight, then I’d get in bed and work until I fell asleep,” Caroline remembers. And yet, customer emails kept piling up.

To Korey, this was unacceptable. She began randomly calling the customer experience line to see whether someone picked up, often berating the managers and screaming, “What is this shit!” at her desk if her call went unanswered.

Korey says these “spot checks” are a typical part of any retail company. “This isn’t the only area we do this,” she adds. “In fact, we use secret shoppers at our retail stores, and we regularly place multiple combinations of e-commerce orders to ensure our fulfillment facilities are packing orders correctly.”

Once, when the managers were training new associates in the conference room, Korey burst through the doors. “Why aren’t you on the phones right now?” Caroline remembers her yelling. Caroline stepped between Korey and the team, who were looking at the spectacle in horror. “We had always guarded our team like mother bears,” she says.

The day before Valentine’s Day, Korey decided she was going to stop the team from taking any more time off. In a series of Slack messages that began at 3AM, she said, “I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability. To hold you accountable…no more [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you…I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values.” (The emphasis is Korey’s.)

Four days later, when she noticed two managers still had time off on the calendar, she was livid. “If you all choose to utilize your empowerment to leave our customers hanging…you will have convinced me that this group does not embody Away’s core values,” she said. (Again, emphasis Korey’s.)

Korey said her messages were necessary to get the team back on track. “Managing people brings with it the responsibility to invest time and energy into providing thoughtful context around performance expectations and feedback,” she wrote in a statement to The Verge.

“It was like watching him get stoned to death”

Days after Korey’s 3AM tirade, she announced that she was hiring a buffer to put between herself and the team: a vice president of customer experience, Monte Williams. The associates were thrilled.

Williams looked people in the eye, spoke to them with respect, and had over a decade of experience leading teams at brands like Rent the Runway. Those who’d been planning to quit decided to stay to learn what they could from this new manager.

Then, in mid-April, the team started to notice something strange. Customer emails were piling up during what was supposed to be a slow period. “We had 100 extra people in our inbox. We were like, what’s going on?” Caroline remembers.

It was a Groundhog Day scenario. The company was rolling out new customization options on the luggage, and the operations team was woefully understaffed. Bags weren’t going out on time and, once again, the customer experience associates couldn’t get a clear estimate on when they were expected to ship. This time, however, Korey couldn’t push the team to tackle their ever-growing inbox: Williams was standing in her way.

The customer experience executive wanted to prioritize his team’s mental well-being, but the inbox of customer emails was the highest it had ever been. The associates oscillated between feeling grateful that someone finally cared about them — Williams was the first person who’d ever really voiced appreciation for their work — and feeling worried he didn’t understand how behind they were getting. At its peak, the inbox of customer inquiries was 4,000 emails deep.

In May, Korey created a Slack channel titled #may-cx-issue to try to address this issue. If Williams wasn’t going to push his team, then she would have to step back in. She began grilling him on why managers — many of whom were working 16-hour days — weren’t answering more customer emails.

Once, a team member tried to explain that managers didn’t handle as many customer emails because they were charged with leading the team. But Korey didn’t buy it. “I’m just going to be honest here, your response to me reads like [the managers] don’t really do anything positive for the business anyway so it doesn’t matter if they’re here or not,” she said.

Williams tried to smooth things over, explaining that some team members were missing calls simply when they stepped away to use the bathroom. “We all always assumed people went to the bathroom,” she responded. “Let’s please stop talking about that as if it’s a surprising Friday update.” Of the interaction, Caroline says, “It was like watching him get stoned to death.”

On May 25th, the team saw a 5:30PM meeting on their calendars and knew the time had come: Williams was being fired. He’d lasted less than six months.

For Caroline, that was the final straw. “I just lost my shit,” she says. “Everybody loved Monte. Everybody. I was just like, ‘This is the first time anybody has cared about the team, and you’re taking it away from us. You really don’t care at all.’”

Within a few months, she would give notice as well.

When asked about why Williams was let go, Grau, the company’s head of people, noted the team’s poor performance. “During the Winter/Spring of 2019, it became apparent that we were not providing a world-class customer service experience. As a result, we made significant changes to the team,” she added in a statement emailed to The Verge.

Korey also added that the move was a last-ditch effort to save a struggling team. “I care tremendously about the Away team and we make every effort to help struggling employees succeed in their role. Only when we’ve exhausted all coaching options do we feel the next step is to help an employee transition to a new career outside of Away and we provide full support during this process,” she wrote.

“Never work for your dream brand”

The explanation was not dissimilar to the one executives gave when they fired people involved in #Hot-Topics. In both situations, employees acted so egregiously they’d given management no choice but to let them go.

But #Hot-Topics was even more perplexing. Whereas the customer experience team had been falling behind under Williams’ leadership (albeit, for reasons some say were beyond his control), employees in #Hot-Topics came from all different parts of the organization. There was no throughline of poor performance or track record of misbehavior to justify their automatic dismissal.

In an intense office environment, having a safe space to talk about work is necessary, even critical, to employees’ sanity and well-being. It’s how they blow off steam at the end of a tough workday, the place they go to find refuge when their projects aren’t going well.

Korey and Rubio knew this; they’d been each other’s sounding boards at Warby Parker. Yet, they treated #Hot-Topics like an anomaly, an unnecessary waste of time compounded by inappropriate language.

Korey wouldn’t comment on what people had said in the channel that she determined was racist. But employees say she pointed to two comments that called out “cis white men.” “It just became really obvious that this happened because someone white and powerful got offended,” says the customer experience manager, Lindsey.

Every person interviewed for this story has since left the company. Some, like Serena, feel conflicted about the founders, two women she both admires and fears. “It’s so fucked up,” she says. “I still want their validation.” When asked what she learned from her time there, she pauses, reflecting on the tumultuous year.

“Never work for your dream brand,” she answers finally. “It’ll kill you.”

All Rights Reserved for Zoe Schiffer

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