I worked in a technology firm where there was a list serve called “Town Hall”. This was meant to be a safe place where there was total transparency about company operations. There were also similar databases where other more controversial topics could be discussed but over time, these became less frequented as discussions were consolidated on Town Hall. As the company leadership became more outspoken on social issues, these often made their way into the database as threads.
Now, most of us were not so foolish to believe that a safe space could ever be 100% so. After all, this was a corporate resource and anything people would say “on the record” could then be used against them at a later point. It also became the modus operandi of the founder and his inner circle to “bait” individuals with opinions with which he disagreed into discussions on the town hall forum.
I remember one such incident that occurred when Arizona SB-1070 had just been floated amidst national controversy because it focused on Mexican and South American immigrants.
As the obligatory company thread began on the bill, it was clear that a mob was forming among our colleagues. The initial post was lobbed in by a company loyalist and was quickly commented on by a few other regulars. “Racist,” one cried! “A violation of rights if we ever saw one,” said another. These folks would not have been wrong for expressing these opinions. That said, no Town Hall thread was without a contrarian. In this case, a developer named Kevin entered the fray to defend the point of view of some of the local Arizona population on the reasoning behind the legislation. He offered his argument not based on personal opinion but on logic. He fell for the stated premise of the group which was to encourage open debate.
That’s when the wolves set upon Kevin. He was just as racist as the authors of this bill, they declared.
The most savage among them was the wolf we called The Silver Fox. He emerged from the silent gallery of onlookers to highlight Kevin’s post and demand that he be fired immediately for not upholding company values. Quickly others joined in the chorus and continued ostracizing Kevin until the thread was closed.
Kevin was not fired that day, no. He was however put on an internal blacklist of sorts: the founder’s “dead to me” list. There was no coming back from this place. It meant the end of good assignments and consideration for any type of promotion. I think he hung in for a year before finally leaving.
Groupthink put a major halt in the step of a very creative software engineer. What’s more, is that it started to erode the trust of many other employees who didn’t participate in that mob-behavior. It may have been the force that ultimately cost the company its soul.