Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have one thing in common with, probably, the majority of large, ethically-challenged software companies. They use stack-ranking, also known as top-grading, also known as rank-and-yank. By top-level mandate, some pre-ordained percentage of employees must fail. A much larger contingent of employees face the stigma of being labelled below-average or average, which not only blocks promotion but makes internal mobility difficult. Stack ranking is a nasty game that executives play against their own employees, forcing them to stab each other in the back. It ought to be ended. Sadly, software engineers do not seem to have the ability to get it abolished. They largely agree that it’s toxic, but nothing’s been done about it, and nothing will be done about it so long as most software engineers remain apolitical cowards who refuse to fight for themselves.
I’ve spent years studying the question of whether it is good or bad for software engineers in the Valley to unionize. The answer is: it depends. There are different kinds of unions, and different situations call for different kinds of collective action. In general, I think the way to go is to create guilds like Hollywood’s actors’ and writers’ guilds, which avoid interfering with meritocracy with seniority systems or compensation ceilings, but establish minimum terms of work, and provide representation and support in case of unfair treatment by management. Stack ranking, binding mandatory arbitration clauses, non-competes, and the mandatory inclusion of performance reviews in a candidate’s transfer packet for internal mobility could be abolished if unions were brought in. So what stands to be lost? A couple hundred dollars per year in dues? Compared to the regular abuse that software engineers suffer in stack-ranked companies, that has got to be the cheapest insurance plan that there is.
To make it clear, I’m not arguing that every software company should be unionized. I don’t think, for example, that a 7-person startup needs to bring in a union. Nor is it entirely about size. It’s about the relationship between the workers and management. The major objections to unionization come down to the claim that they commoditize labor; what once could have had warm-fuzzy associations about creative exertion and love of the work is now something where people are disallowed from doing it more than 10 hours per day without overtime pay. However, once the executives have decided to commoditize the workers’ labor, what’s lost in bringing in a union? At bulk levels, labor just seems to become a commodity. Perhaps that’s a sad realization to have, and those who wish it were otherwise should consider going independent or starting their own companies. Once a company sees a worker as an atom of “headcount” instead of an individual, or a piece of machinery to be “assigned” to a specific spot in the system, it’s time to call in the unions. Unions generally don’t decelerate the commoditization of labor; instead, they acceptit as a fait accompli and try to make sure that the commoditization happens on fair terms for the workers. You want to play stack-ranking, divide-and conquer, “tough culture” games against our engineers? Fine, but we’re mandating a 6-month minimum severance for those pushed out, retroactively striking all binding mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts should any wrongful termination suits occur, offering to pay legal expenses of exiting employees, and (while we’re at it) raising salaries to a minimum of $220,000 per year. Eatit, biscuit-cutters.
If unions come roaringinto Silicon Valley, we can expect a massive fight from its established malefactors. And since they can’t win in numbers (engineers outnumber them) they will try to fight culturally, claiming that unions threaten to create an adversarial climate between engineers and management. Sadly, many young engineers will be likely to fall for this line, since they tend to believethat they’re going to bemanagement inside of30 months. To that, I have two counterpoints. First, unions don’t necessarily create an adversarial climate; they create a negotiatory one. They give engineers a chance to fight back against bad behaviors, and also provide a way for them to negotiate terms that would be embarrassing for the individual to negotiate. For example, no engineer, while he’s negotiating a job offer, can talk aboutabout ripping out the binding mandatory negotiation clause (it signals, “I’m considering the possibility, however remote, that I might have to sue you”) or fight against over-broad IP assignments (“I plan on having side projects which won’t directly compete with you, but that may compete for my time, attention and affection”) or non-competes (“I haven’t ruled out the possibility of working for a competing firm”). Right now, the balance of power between employers and employees in Silicon Valley is so demonically horrible that simply insisting on having one’s natural and legal rights makes that prospective employee, in HR terms, a “PITA” risk and that will end the discussion right there. Instead, we need a collective organization that can strike these onerous employment terms for everyone.
When a company’s management plays stack-ranking games against its employees, an adversarial climate between management and labor already exists. Bringing in a union won’t create such an environment; it will only make the one that exists more fair. You absolutely want a union whenever it becomes time to say, “Look, we know that you view our labor as a commodity– we get it, we’re not special snowflakes in your eyes, and we’re fine with that– so let’s talk about setting fair terms of exchange”.
Am I claiming that all of Silicon Valley should be unionized? Perhaps an employer-independent and relatively lightweight union like Hollywood’s actors’ and writers’ guilds would be useful. With the stack-rank companies in particular, however, I think that it’s time to take the discussion even further. While I don’t support absolutely everything that people have come to associate with unions, the threat needs to be there. You want to stack-rank our engineers? Well, then we’re putting in a seniority system and making you unable to fire people without our say-so.
At Google, for example, engineers live in perennial fear of “Perf” and “the Perf Room”. (There actually is no “Perf Room”, so when a Google manager threatens to “take you into the Perf Room” or to “Perf you”, it’s strictly metaphorical. The place doesn’t actually exist, and while the terminology often getsa bit rapey– an employee assigned a sub-3.0 score is said to be“biting the pillow”– all that actually happens is that a number is inserted into a computerized form.) Perf scores, which are often hidden from the employee, follow him forever. They make internal mobility difficult, because even average scores make an engineer less desirable as a transfer candidate than a new hire– why take a 50th- or even 75th-percentile internal hire and risk angering the candidate’s current manager, when you can fill the spot with a politically unentangled external candidate? The whole process exists to deprive the employee of the right to stateher own case for her capability, and to represent her performance history on her terms. And it’s the sort of abusive behavior that will never end until the executives of the stack-ranked companies are opposed with collective action. It’s time to take them, and their shitty behaviors, into the Perf Room for good.