It’s been one year since Reddit revolted. When the company cracked down on revenge porn and subreddits containing offensive content last summer, the backlash was swift and ultimately led to the ouster of interim CEO Ellen Pao.
Although Pao was seen as the driving force behind efforts to make Reddit respectable enough to appeal to advertisers, the company continued its clean-up after her departure, making diverse hires and keeping up with the anti-harassment policy instituted during Pao’s tenure.
But Reddit, led by CEO Steve Huffman, seems to be struggling with its reform. Over the past six months, over a dozen senior Reddit employees — most of them women and people of color — have left the company. Reddit’s efforts to expand its media empire have also faltered.
Reddit let go of at least two key members of its team earlier this week, several sources with knowledge of Reddit confirmed to TechCrunch. Among those who lost their jobs are Reddit’s vice president of marketing, Celestine Maddy and Reddit’s editorial director, Vickie Chang. Also this week, Reddit HR generalist Nicole-Jasmin Clark left the company, according to our sources, as well as a handful of people from the marketing team.
The layoffs follow departures from the network’s video team last month, and the slow trickle of employees exiting the company over the past several months. Back in May, Reddit lost its head of community, Kristine Fasnacht, after being in the role for just nine months. In short, female and POC employees have been quietly leaving the company — by way of layoffs and resignations — from many departments, including engineering, marketing, operations and product. Reddit’s associate creative director Stephen Greenwood also left the company in June.
“Over the past several weeks, we’ve been reorganizing our communications, editorial, video, and marketing teams,” a Reddit spokesperson told TechCrunch. “As a part of this reorganization, a few employees were let go and others who were offered restructured roles decided to resign and pursue other opportunities. We wish all of our former colleagues well and thank them for their valued time and service to Reddit.”
However, sources say Reddit’s internal turmoil can be traced back to the company’s ongoing struggle to leave its antagonistic culture behind. Several employees fended off uncomfortable comments from users and management alike, sources claimed. “Management is terrible, a complete reflection of what the site is like,” one source said.
Another source, a former Reddit employee who asked to remain anonymous described a management team with good intentions but poor execution.
“Leadership needed to be more organized, focused, and unified,” the source said. “There was a lot of internal conflict and sudden firings that left much of the staff feeling insecure and like we could be fired at the drop of a hat and without warning. For that reason alone, bringing Huffman back was probably the best they could do at the time. Although, if people keep being let go or leaving out of dissatisfaction, it doesn’t appear to have improved much.”
One individual speculated that the reemergence of the company’s drinking culture was to blame for the uncomfortable environment. Under Pao’s reign, Reddit tried to eradicate the bro-like amount of alcohol consumption at the office, but that went right out the window following Pao’s departure in July 2015.
“During all the leadership regimes, there were multiple incidents where employees would drink too much and end up in embarrassing and inappropriate situations,” a source explained. “There were multiple sexual harassment complaints from both female and male employees against female and male employees stemming from incidents that generally happened when employees were drinking.”
Many of the layoffs and exits occurred in departments that reported to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who rejoined the company in November 2014 just as Pao was appointed interim CEO. Ohanian was initially appointed executive chairman, but left that role in July 2015 during Reddit’s revolt and became the company’s general manager instead.
Ohanian returned to Reddit with a sense of what he called “moral responsibility” for the future of the platform and a desire to build the company from the so-called “front page of the internet” into a full-fledged media empire. Sources confirm that Ohanian was a driving force behind the company’s expansion into journalism, podcasts and video, pushing for the creation of an anthology of Reddit AMAs and building out Reddit’s film team to collaborate with Google on a video series called “Formative.”
As part of its bid to expand the company’s presence in the media world, Reddit launched a digital magazine called Upvoted in October. The publication started with lofty goals of producing heavy-hitting journalism in mass quantities: Upvoted ran features on the Flint water crisis, homelessness, and the Paris terrorist attacks, and the team planned to produce as many as 40 original articles per day.
Upvoted also served as a vehicle to drive non-Redditors to the site, covering AMAs and other popular Reddit threads to make them more easily accessible for readers unfamiliar with Reddit’s format.
But Upvoted has since been significantly scaled back. The plan is to relaunch Upvoted “in the next few months,” Ohanian told Recode in June, adding that the site would be folded back into Reddit instead of appearing as a stand-alone publication. Ohanian said Upvoted was “stockpiling content” for the eventual relaunch, which was delayed “because we’ve been busy shipping native mobile and a variety of other engineering projects.”
With the departure of Chang, Reddit’s editorial director, the fate of Upvoted is in question.
Reddit’s Upvoted podcast, which Ohanian launched in January 2015, also appears to be abandoned. Aside from a single episode published in June, the podcast hasn’t been updated since October 2015. The “Formative” video series produced in partnership with Google, which aired new episodes roughly once a month since its launch, has been dark for four months.
The dip in media production is in part due to the ongoing exodus of editorial and marketing employees from Reddit, sources claim. But sources say that Ohanian’s leadership also faltered, and that the editorial team clashed with the marketing department over what the role of Upvoted should be. As Ohanian told Inc. during Upvoted’s launch, he saw the expansion into media as an opportunity to turn Reddit into a content goldmine. He noticed news sites cherry-picking content from Reddit and wanted in on the action.
“There are so many media companies that are so good at harvesting that content,” Ohanian told Inc. “What I want to do is allow those stories — and the story behind their story — to be told by the people who are actually responsible for them.”
But re-blogging content from AMAs seems at odds with Upvoted’s mission to produce original journalism, and many of the writers hired in October 2015 were let go just three months later, in January 2016, and Upvoted appears to have featured the bylines of Chang and freelancers since then. Recent headlines are heavily Reddit-focused, including “Redditors Photoshop LeBron James Clutching His Trophy” and “Filmmakers Behind Documentary ‘Salam Neighbor’ Discuss Syrian Refugee Crisis in Reddit AMA.” How recycled content from Reddit can be folded back into the site remains to be seen.
The plans to overhaul Reddit’s reputation as a hotbed for harassment and to remake the company as a multi-media publisher have yet to prove successful — at it seems that the departures of senior employees are impacting Reddit’s product and performance.
So why can’t Reddit seem to hang on to its employees — particularly women and people of color? The same source who described management issues told us “working at Reddit is kind of like having an abusive boyfriend.”
You care deeply for it. You believe in it. You want to make it better. You think you just might be the person that can make that happen. Then one day you realize how hard you have worked to make positive changes only to have it constantly chip away at your sense of self and continue the same toxic behavior no matter what you do.
That toxic behavior, including the disturbing content and harassment commonly found on reddit, targets women on the site and within the company at a far greater rate than men. Eventually you have to decide if you want to be a part of that. Is it healthy to continue working there? Many of us have had to seek therapy for PTSD since leaving. I don’t think anyone realizes or acknowledges the emotional damage that can occur from an environment like that.
It’s not surprising to me when women leave.
Poor retention rates are the root of the lack of diversity in tech. Women, for example, leave tech companies at twice the rate of men, according to a study by the Harvard Business Review. The most common reason for departure is the working conditions (e.g. no advancement, number of hours, low salary). Hiring diverse employees won’t boost a company’s diversity stats if those workers don’t feel welcome and quickly leave the company — it’s the equivalent of filling up a leaky bucket.
“Steve [Huffman] and the people he hired to help with hiring did a better job of formalizing a goal of diversity within the company — not with numbers, but just explicitly stating to the company that it was something we should strive for, etcetera. We were able to screen more candidates because instead of having a single recruiter, we had a team. It led to more diverse candidates, but we still struggled,” a source said.
And while sources say Reddit made efforts to hire diverse staff in the wake of Pao’s exodus, many of those employees departed less than a year later. That said, Reddit has never released a diversity report, so it’s unclear how many women and/or people of color currently work at the company. Reddit’s general counsel Melissa Tidwell told TechCrunch in May that the company doesn’t publish diversity reports because it is “too small to be doing them.” (Diversity advocates say it’s never too early to evaluate diversity, and Pao’s Project Include recommends baking diversity and inclusion into a company’s culture from day one.)
The turnover didn’t just affect Reddit’s overall diversity — it appears to have impacted Reddit’s ambitious plans to build out its media operations, as employees key to those efforts departed.
“Rather than harming any particular project, another round of women leaving will hurt Reddit’s reputation and make hiring women and under-represented minorities more difficult again, if they are trying to diversify their staff,” the source referenced earlier said. “It appears that leadership roles have gone primarily to men so, in reality, they’ll probably suffer very little.”
As employees walked away from Reddit over the past six months, the company removed its team page that listed current and former employees. The page was removed from Reddit on March 2 and replaced with a generic “about” page that does not display profiles or Reddit usernames of any employees. Huffman, Reddit’s CEO, sent an email to the staff about the removal of the page, sources say, claiming that the page needed to be taken down to shield employees from the site’s users.
Meanwhile, Reddit’s active user base is fluctuating quite a bit month over month. Reddit recently told Backchannel that it has grown to 243 million visitors a month, up from 164 million a year ago. But the reality of Reddit’s unique visitors is not as clear cut as you might think. As of August 14, 2015, Reddit counted 195 million monthly unique visitors. Reddit seems to have hit its peak in April 2016 with 244 million unique visitors. The following month, Reddit’s active visitors dropped down to 221 million. That was the last time Reddit publicly shared its numbers.
TechCrunch contacted Ohanian for comment yesterday and sent a detailed list of questions about the issues raised in this article to Reddit’s PR team today. Reddit has yet to respond.
This story has been updated with additional comments from anonymous sources.