‘Open by default’ is essential to creating inclusive workplaces

Recently, I accepted a new job offer.  And I was excited, as so many folks are when they find meaningful work.  It felt like such a great gig: my entire reporting line would be women!  It would be global in scope!  It would be spreading behavioral science among Fortune 500 CEOs!  I turned down three competing offers, told my family, and started working on plans for the first few months.

Then the employment agreement arrived.

It had the standard bevy of non-competes and non-solicits, which are problematic in their own right but still a standard that hasn’t been broadly challenged (although the FTC is working on it).  And yes, they wanted to own my IP, which has its own thorny definitional challenges when your job is uncovering and appplying underlying truths about human behavior (“Who owns science?” can turn into a very long conversation).  But those issues were navigable and in twenty years of working, despite all my apprehensions, I’d never actually had any problems arise.

Yet the packet also referenced agreeing to policies, like a code of conduct, that weren’t attached.  So I asked the executive recruiter if they could send them over, because one of the things drilled into me by my father was to never sign a contract I didn’t understand (FBFP, or “fucked by fine print”, was a common condition in rural Oregon).

“I’m sorry, our policy is not to share our policies outside of the company and since you don’t work here yet, we can’t send those to you.”

Ruh roh.

That stance isn’t actually all that uncommon, as the standard of many enterprise companies is to be closed by default, because they believe it minimizes risk.  In this case, risk that they’ll get bad press or lawsuits around something in the policies.  Or risk that candidates will read the policies and refuse to join, rather than reading them once they’re already dependent on the paycheck and cognitive dissonance changes their mind (literally).

And I get it, I really do.  Even though I believe employment policies should be open by default because public scrutiny is actually the best protection against catastrophic risk, I recognize it is something upon which reasonable people could disagree.

But closed by default isn’t just about legal risk; it is also about creating inclusive workplaces.  In the case of my offer, it turns out that joining would require me to stop tweeting (except to retweet officially sanctioned company propaganda…I mean, uh, very valuable thought leadership pieces) and blogging (because I might leak the secret recipe to behavioral science on an unapproved channel; its “behavior as an outcome, science as a process”, just FYI).

That was enough for me to turn down the offer, because I’m privileged enough to have other options and money to fall back on if I didn’t.  My new employer also asked me to agree to their code of conduct as part of my employment but when I asked to read it, they simply sent it over.  And just like my previous boss, Vivek Garipalli at Clover Health (“I don’t care if other companies literally follow you around the office every day; they can’t execute like we can.”), my new boss believes that public science is a good thing: he likened it to football, where playing in public helps the sport evolve.

But not everyone gets a happy ending.  Sometimes, “my poverty, but not my will, consents.”  And as a white guy, it is a) likely that the code of conduct I never got to read is built around my cultural norms and b) I probably wouldn’t even get in that much trouble for violating it, just because of how accountability works in corporate America.  But that is dramatically different for many, many people.  Often those with the fewest options are also those the environment is least inclusive of. 

And yes, it is possible that, tweeting and blogging aside, the policies I never ready were very sensible.  But closed by default means we can’t know and in the absence of evidence of the contrary, we should assume the norm.  And unfortunately, as evidenced by the preponderance of white males at the top of the social pyramid, racism and sexism and other forms of bias are the norm.

If you think that a bad code of conduct sounds far fetched, remember that Google is just now acknowledging that people have the legal right to talk about their salaries.  And we had to pass laws so that black people could wear their hair naturally at work (and they aren’t even universally adopted yet) because 80% of black women felt pressured to change their hair style in order to fit in.  Does the code of conduct mention salary data or hair?  No idea, because you can’t read the policy until after you join and I didn’t.  But again, until we specifically know that something is an exception, we should assume the norm.

In the end, closed by default policies minimize some risks but create others.  You lose talent that won’t sign in the blind or refuses to work in an environment that doesn’t value their ability to have a public opinion.  You decrease diversity by preventing the formation of an open, inclusive environment.  And given the preponderance of evidence that open environments are associated with profitability (Satya Nadella’s tenure at Microsoft is an excellent case study), closed by default creates very real profit risk.

We need to be default open.  To share our code of conduct, when people ask.  To publish research and processes, because execution is really the only moat.  And if the sharing sparks controversy or others iterate on it, we can use that feedback to build something better.  Because we can’t have it both ways, preaching innovation through failure but hiding out of fear of our own failures.  Truth will out; out yourself.

Side Note:  There are a host of industries that profit on ambiguity by trading on information asymmetry, either directly or indirectly.  But because of the endowment effect, asymmetry is hard to perpetuate because once we have access to information, it instantly becomes more valuable because we psychologically “own” it. That is why workplaces will always drift toward more liberal policies; once you’ve had access to more relaxed rules around social media, spending, dress code, etc, the price of giving that up will simply get higher and higher and higher. Thus shifting to a liberal workplace early is actually a competitive advantage, even if Jamie Diamond doesn’t see it yet.