Yesterday Sqoot, a daily deal technology start up, announced a hackathon in Boston. In the copy on their Eventbrite event they made a Pretty Big Mistake and due to The Internet we all got to be front row for their attempts to make amends.
Yesterday Sqoot, a daily deal technology start up, announced a hack-a-thon in Boston. In the copy on their Eventbrite event they made a Pretty Big Mistake and due to The Internet we all got to be front row for their attempts to make amends.
If you’re already familiar with the specifics of the situation, you can skip down to my takeaways.
When Sqoot posted their original Eventbrite event, one of the perks listed for the event, in a list that included massages and DJs, was: “Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.” Women are not perks for developers. For a company in a male-dominated industry, an industry with a history of gender inequality, to make jokes like that is careless and damaging.
In a stunningly short period of time, the Internet had blown up in outrage, sponsors had pulled their support, and Sqoot was left with a hot mess to fix. First: it’s actually pretty encouraging to see such public (and rapid) condemnation coming from both men and women in the tech field–this has not been (and still isn’t) always the case. Second: it became immediately clear that Sqoot wasn’t really sure what they had done wrong or how to go about fixing it.
Early on in the disaster, and what’s incredible is how compressed the timeline for things like this have become, Sqoot tried to pass the whole thing off as a joke. When asked “Why is ‘women’ a feature of your API jam?!” they responded “for the record, there will be a plethora of men too!” and “just a little humor”. As someone came to Sqoot’s defense, saying “Have you ever met a woman? They are def. a perk amongst sausage-fest hacking events.” Sqoot replied, “boom!”
Five hours later, as hundreds of people angrily tweeted @sqoot and sponsors started pulling their support, Sqoot issued their first apology and changed the language on the Eventbrite event. The thing is, they didn’t really apologize for anything:
While we thought this was a fun, harmless comment poking fun at the fact that hack-a-thons are typically male-dominated, others were offended. That was not our intention and thus we changed it.
Not only did they toss up a weakly worded non-apology (we’re sorry you were offended), but they started replying to anyone who had complained on Twitter with the exact same tweet and a link to the non-apology: “We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to offend.” It felt rote, insincere, and still wasn’t actually an apology.
Less than an hour later they had switched their copy-and-paste tweet reply to simply “We’re sorry.”
Then, finally, nine hours later Sqoot did what they should have done in the first place and posted an actual apology on their blog:
When we put together the original event page, we used language that we now realize was reckless and hurt efforts to diversify gender in tech. We immediately and deservedly received an enormous backlash. While we aimed to call attention to the male-dominated tech world through humor and intended to be inclusive, the gravity of our wording was just the opposite. Our words completely undermined our intentions and went further to harm the world we’re trying to have a positive impact on.
We apologize unequivocally to our sponsors, customers, friends and family, and community. We’d like to thank everyone for being so outspoken. As a young startup, we learned a lot today and are better people and a better company for it.
I really do believe that last part. The people at Sqoot are better people after yesterday. What we were privileged to watch unfold in a very public way was meaty, dense, and (hopefully) life-changing stuff. It’s the kind of lesson that, at the time, sucks to learn but can really change how you interact with other humans.
It was an arc that went from clueless, to worried, to frantic, to (mostly) apologetic all in front of a live studio audience. The whole situation is packed with lessons for anyone that owns a company (or really, anyone who relates to humans on regular basis); here are some of my takeaways:
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Things happen really fast
We talk a lot about the “twenty-four hour news cycle,” but thanks to the intertubez and social media every sort of cycle is compressing. Sqoot’s mistake didn’t take days to leak out into the public consciousness, it took hours (minutes?).
Think before you speak
Just because people are reacting to your terrible mistake in real time doesn’t mean you need to respond in real time. I think one of Sqoot’s biggest mistakes (you know, after the original mistake) was rushing their response. They didn’t understand why what they said was offensive and until they did they weren’t in a position to make an apology.
A corollary to this: be really careful when responding to people who are hurt or offended by something you did. Some of the most damning things Sqoot said were joking responses to people who were genuinely offended.
There’s opportunity in apology
The Internet is quick to spread interesting information. Sqoot offering women as perks was “interesting.” Sqoot’s apology was not. I’m sure far fewer people have read their apology than have heard about their misogynistic copy.
What if they had called up a couple of leading female developers and asked them how to make things right? How could Sqoot have turned their mistake into a chance to elevate female developers?
Our culture lacks forgiveness
We love schadenfreude, we love when people fail, we love when people make irreparable mistakes. But we don’t love to forgive them. The vitriolic tone of the criticism levied at Sqoot and the speed at which it spread to strangers who had never heard of the company is terrifying to someone like me–someone who makes mistakes pretty much on the regular.
You would think that with the majority of our business (both personal and work-related) now floating around on the Internet for all to see, we would be developing a quicker forgiveness reflex. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. This bums me out.