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More and More ‘Mad as Hell' Moments

Recent public resignations are a sign that employees have the means and the moxie to take their grievances to the masses.

April 3, 2012

Remember the Howard Beale character in the movie Network? The unhinged TV network anchor told viewers to stick their heads out of their windows and shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

It worked; windows opened and people began screaming. But there was little impact. It turned out that people yelling out their windows isn't much of a threat to the established order.

Employees sounding off against companies online though are another matter. And increasingly, employees are speaking their truth through the Internet. Miffed workers find themselves encouraged by a growing culture of self-expression and empowered by tools ranging from mainstream media to niche professional publications to Facebook, blogs and feedback sites such as Glassdoor.com.

The result is more and more mad-as-hell moments. You see this clearly from recent high-profile resignations. Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith quit in March by publishing a screed against the investment bank in the New York Times. Smith said Goldman took advantage of clients and mocked them as "Muppets," and that its culture had withered in the past 12 years or so: "Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement," he wrote.

On the heels of Smith's blistering op-ed came a resignation essay from Shay Pierce, a former employee of Omgpop. Omgpop makes the suddenly popular "Draw Something" application for iPhones and iPads, and recently was acquired by game-maker giant Zynga Inc. Pierce declined to make the move to Zynga, though. In an essay published March 27 at video game news site Gamasutra, Pierce claimed Zynga declined to assure him that he could maintain control of an independent game project he'd launched. That game, Connectrode, is not a big hit. But Pierce wrote that he cares about it deeply, and his frustration spilled over into a broader diatribe against Zynga:

"An evil company is trying to get rich quick, and has no regard for the harm they're doing along the way. It's not making things of value, it's chasing a gold rush. An evil game company isn't really interested in making games, it's too busy playing a game—a game with the stock market, usually. It views players as weak-minded cash cows; and it views its developers as expendable, replaceable tools to create the machines that milk those cows. It follows unsustainable practices (like cloning or even completely screwing innovators; or abusing viral channels until they have to be curtailed)—all practices which, in the long-term, not only make things worse for every other company in the industry, but ultimately for itself. Zynga is not the only one of these, but yes, they fit my definition."

Call it measured mad-as-hell.

It's hard to say whether Pierce's punch has hurt Zynga. As of April 2, Draw Something was the top free app at the Apple App store as well as the No. 2 app for purchase. On the other hand, anytime a potential employee thinks about joining Zynga, they are liable to stumble across the Pierce essay. They might chalk it up to sour grapes. Or they might think again about pursuing work at Zynga.

Goldman Sachs, for its part, paid an immediate price for Smith's very public Dear John letter. The company's market capitalization dropped by some $2 billion in its aftermath. This was so even though the public had heard searing criticism of Goldman during the Great Recession.

Smith also signed a $1.5 million deal to write about his experience at Goldman. That book will likely keep Smith's critique alive for months or years to come.

Life is imitating art here. Many employees these days are mad as hell, feeling overworked and anxious about their job security. And they are more willing than ever to open up a window and tell the world about it.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce Management. To comment, write to efrauenheim@workforce.com.