It’s been a busy month for Reddit. July has included a major shutdowns, the loss of a CEO and the return of a co-founder who quickly cracked down on errant users.  It’s a storyline that could inspire TV soap opera writers!

In reality, there are two, overlapping stories which offer valuable lessons in communication for all managers.

The First Story

On July 2nd Reddit’s director of talent, Victoria Taylor, was abruptly dismissed.  Ms. Taylor was the primary conduit to the numerous volunteer moderators who oversee Reddit’s highly popular Ask Me Anything (A.M.A.) interviews.   Two moderators described Ms. Taylor’s role: “Communities [on Reddit] built their policies around her and relied on her as a coach, a warm voice and a point of contact in an emergency.” Given her significance to them, you would have thought it prudent for management to immediately inform their moderators of Ms. Taylor’s departure as well as their plans to fill the resulting gap.

Not only did Reddit fail to do this, but the manner in which moderators finally found out about Ms. Taylor’s departure added to the insult.  One moderator had flown to New York for a previously scheduled A.M.A. session only to find it cancelled without notice.  Management’s silence became the proverbial straw that broke the moderators’ patience.  On July 3rd, they staged a one-day shutdown of large sections of Reddit and two of them wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times expressing frustration with management.

The next casualty was Reddit’s CEO Ellen Pao.  Without a hint to the reason for Ms. Taylor’s dismissal, users likely assumed it was unjustified and Ms. Pao’s sole decision.  (One report offers an alternative explanation which includes a co-founder possibly losing his seat on Reddit’s board.) The result: Users bombarded the internet with, as Ms. Pao put it,  “one of the largest trolling attacks in history”.  Ms. Pao resigned on July 10th.  (In a post on Reddit, Ms. Pao stated her reason for resigning as an inability to deliver on the board’s aggressive growth goals.  Could one reason for this inability be a loss of user confidence in her?)

The Second Story

This story actually begins before and contributed to the debacle of the first story.  In order to increase ad revenue, Reddit has been trying to damp down its more controversial user content.  Two months prior to Ms. Taylor’s dismissal, Ms. Pao instituted anti-harassment policies. However, Ms. Pao did not add resources to enforce this policy.  Rather, she relied on users to report abuses themselves.  This added to the burden of the volunteer moderators.  As the two moderators noted in their Op-Ed: “The secondary purpose of shutting down was to communicate to the relatively tone-deaf company leaders that the pattern of removing tools and failing to improve available tools to the community at large, not merely the moderators, was an affront to the people who use the site.”

And this story is not over.  New CEO and Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman is trying to institute policies to control the site’s darker content.  However, like Ms. Pao, he is using a top-down strategy to create and impose these rules.  We’ll see how users and especially the already alienated moderators react to this.

Lessons learned

Reddit’s experiences offer lessons for all business owners which include:

  • Communicate with Stakeholders: Operational decisions need to be communicated to affected stakeholders.  No one likes surprises especially when it’s bad news.  Another advantage of initiating the communication is management control of the context in which the message is delivered.  The other option is to let rumor-mills spread the news which always ends badly.
  • Include Stakeholders: It seems Ms. Pao and Mr. Huffman both chose a top-down strategy to develop and communicate rules to control online harassment. As the client I described in an earlier blog learned,  a company’s production workers, such as Reddit’s moderators, have a hands-on understanding of processes and can often provide the most practical and productive solutions.
  • Vest Stakeholders: Giving your employees, and sometimes even volunteers, a stake in the game makes them part of the solution.  Profit sharing incentivizes workers to do their best and offer cost-saving solutions to otherwise unknown problems.  Another option, shared ownership, has already been proposed by a Reddit investor and board member.  Employee ownership, whether in the form of ESOPS or otherwise, can be complicated and is not for every business.  Even Reddit has hit a regulatory snag in implementing it.

The moderator authors of the Op-Ed summarize the need for communication best:  “Pay attention to the user base. Users are not simply a screaming mob. They are actually asking for reasonable support, and as moderators, we are trying very hard to do what we can to make those changes happen.”  Substitute “customers” and “staff” in this statement and its relevance to your business becomes clear.