In May 1991, Time magazine published a game-changing cover story, “Scientology: The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.” The famously litigious Church of Scientology responded with ad campaigns and a libel lawsuit, which they lost (Wikipedia).
The title of this essay reflects some unpleasant similarities I’ve discovered between the corporate culture of Scientology and that of many tech companies, including my former employers Google (now Alphabet, Inc.) and Microsoft (under former CEO Steve Ballmer). I find these attitudes severely damaging to employee morale and to the long-term success of the respective organizations, although I believe that Microsoft has improved matters somewhat in recent years under their current CEO, Satya Nadella.
In Scientology, staff and Sea Org members dedicate themselves to the survival of the organization and are encouraged to ignore or suppress their own feelings and obligations to friends and family in favor of devotion to the goals of the organization and to “upholding Command Intention”, or the orders of David Miscavige, the current head of the Scientology. Miscavige’s official title is “Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center,” abbreviated to “C.O.B.” by Scientologists.
All Scientology organizations are managed according to “Admin Tech”, policies set down by L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s to 1980s based on management techniques current at the time, particularly for sales organizations. Specifically, employees at every level of Scientology are assigned work based on the philosophy of Management by objectives, or MBO. They’re assigned goals and statistics, which must continuously improve from week to week in order for the employee to remain in good graces in the church. This is called “upstat.”
When a Scientology employee (staff or Sea Org) does not continuously improve their stats, which are collected every Thursday at 2:00 p.m., by selling more Scientology courses, books, auditing, or whatever other objectives have been assigned to them, than they did in the previous week, they are considered “downstat” and are punished with “Ethics Conditions”, listed under Ethics (Scientology) in Wikipedia.
My contention is that this is a cruel way to treat employees of any organization, and also that this is how companies like Alphabet (and its subsidiary Google) generally operate.
In Google, employees are evaluated every year according to an opaque “perf” system that generates numeric scores that the employee is not allowed to see or to challenge. If an employee’s perf isn’t improving, they face “Performance Expectation Plans” and “Performance Improvement Plans” of increasing severity, which the employee is told are designed to bring them back into the fold, but which are actually designed to create a paper trail for HR in order to terminate the individual’s employment if management determines they are no longer worth the amount it costs the company to continue to employ them.
The problem with companies like Google is that they’re losing engineers at every level of the company because it’s simply no longer fun to work there, or at least that was my experience. I was punished by my manager for lower “perf” than he expected from me, due to my complete loss of interest in the real overarching goals of Android (to provide a minimal platform for Google’s closed-source, proprietary apps) as opposed to the goals presented to the public and Google’s partners (to provide an exceptional platform for Google’s partners to make great smartphones), and to my depression over the recent loss of my father after a several year battle with dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
The conclusion I came to regarding Google/Alphabet is that it is a cruel company concerned only with making the most money possible (greed), which had completely lost touch with any human elements of empathy or sympathy by the time I resigned in 2014. In retrospect, it was an incredibly creepy company to work for because employees are constantly evaluated as if we were code-writing robots, not people. In that regard, Alphabet is very much like the Church of Scientology’s management culture.
My experience with Microsoft was even worse because they had a “stack ranking” system which required managers to determine, “objectively”, a certain percentage of employees to fire every year for low performance. Of course this approach leads to an incredible amount of ill will and to managers cheating the system to retain favorites and friends and to punish their enemies and their subordinates. What I failed to understand about Google’s corporate culture is that they also do this, but unofficially. The idea of discarding temporarily low performing employees as “disposable people” is both cruel and despicable.
One final area of commonality between the Church of Scientology’s management practices and the tech world is the constant creation of “knowledge reports” — employees snitching on each other to “Ethics” (Scientology’s version of Human Resources) for not working hard enough, making mistakes, or showing any signs of ideological disloyalty.
Writing reports on other employees, and other attributes of cult indoctrination that I noticed at Google and Microsoft (us vs. them thinking, avoiding any questioning of upper management for fear of career damage), are well described in a New York Times story last year about Amazon’s corporate culture, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.
I’d strongly encourage everyone working in tech to be aware of the undue influence generated by sophisticated corporate psychological manipulation strategies such as those I just described. One book I highly recommend is Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn’t Want You to Know — and What to Do About Them by Cynthia Shapiro.
Thanks for reading.