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Human Resources

Technology Babylon, Zenefits and the not so unfamiliar tales of excess

The scandal at cloud HR startup Zenefits was already juicy after the heavily-funded company’s CEO left amid revelations about a chronically lacking approach to compliance issues. But it took a new turn this week with a Wall Street Journal story that reported an internal email asking staff to desist from drinking, smoking and having sex in stairwells.

Cue a mixture of mockery, humour and (perhaps feigned) shock but in truth fast-growth technology and licentious behaviour have often gone hand in hand. Whenever you have a cocktail of young people, lots of money to be made, long hours, pressure to succeed and aggressive targets then there’s a fair chance, among western companies at least, that there will be some college-style high jinks.

Not many technology CEOs today will care to comment on Zenefits because they know that their companies will have experienced something along these lines. Some of those CEOs will have got involved themselves and a few will have led the way.

Startup companies often encourage a culture of risk taking and go out of their way to keep employees entertained and motivated. It’s not exactly Hollywood Babylon but it can come close. Office bars, boozy nights out, inappropriate acts and relationships, risqué humour, fast cars: all these will often go with the territory and can be regarded as helping compensate some individuals for the very long hours and very hard work that underlies the technology business.

Mostly it’s harmless fun. “Nobody got killed,” I was once told by the former CEO of a once high-flying software company recalling its youthful culture. “Well, I don’t think they did…”

In a few cases there have been tragic repercussions but mostly it’s fairly familiar human behaviour, warts and all. I have personally observed several executives at well-known companies taking an abrupt turn from their senses after having made too much, too soon. The culture of work hard, play hard that is hardwired into many organisations sometimes sits badly with marriages and families, wellbeing and even sanity.

There have been legions of public and privately told stories of extreme and lurid behaviour on behalf of many executives – I can vouch for some of them. Even some of the largest companies have a reputation for living high on the hog. It’s certainly the case in any business that great success can march in lockstep with reckless behaviour and substance abuse and it just so happens that technology has offered more opportunities for that success than any other business sector in modern times.

Zenefits is cleaning up its act as it certainly needs to do so although my hunch is that a name change and a period of calm will be the minimal requirement needed before it can restore its tarnished lustre. But out-there behaviour will never go away where there are mountains of cash to be made and people with soaring ambitions and appetites.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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