Netflix has had a rough few months, to be sure. Just last month, the company reported its first drop in subscribers in over a decade. Since the beginning of the year, its stock price is down almost 70 percent.
That's after the company found itself facing intense criticism from employees over its decision to stand by David Chappelle's recent standup special. Employees staged a walkout, claiming that the special was transphobic. Netflix's co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, defended the special, and the company fired an employee it accused of leaking confidential information.
Now, the company is updating its culture memo, which lays out a series of operating principles and core values. It is meant to help employees make decisions, and it also gives potential employees an understanding of the company's culture.
In the update, Netflix added a section on "Artistic Expression," which says, in part:
Not everyone will like--or agree with--everything on our service. While every title is different, we approach them based on the same set of principles: we support the artistic expression of the creators we choose to work with; we program for a diversity of audiences and tastes; and we let viewers decide what's appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices.
As employees we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values. Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you'd find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.
In effect, Netflix is telling employees to quit if they aren't comfortable with the content the streaming service produces. It's saying that even though it knows some people won't agree with the decisions it makes, this principle is important enough that it's willing to lose employees. More directly, it's telling anyone who might be thinking they want to work at Netflix to look elsewhere if they aren't willing to work on projects they might find objectionable.
You could argue this isn't a very employee-friendly policy. Telling employees to quit if they have a problem with David Chappelle, or any content on Netflix, seems a little, well, harsh. That's all true.
Here's the thing, however. I actually think it's kind of brilliant.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that employees shouldn't have opinions or that they shouldn't express them. Employees are people, and people have opinions. They also have values and beliefs and principles.
When employees feel like they have to compromise those principles because of the decisions their employer makes, they'll often let you know. That's not--in and of itself--a bad thing. Employers should absolutely consider their employees when making important decisions.
At the same time, this is where things can get messy. If something like artistic expression is an important principle for Netflix, there will absolutely be people who disagree with any particular piece of content. Many of them will feel strongly enough to make those feelings known. The solution, in that case, isn't to have no values or principles, the solution is to be clear up front about what they are.
By the way, I'm not suggesting that companies shouldn't listen to employees and make changes. I'm also not suggesting that Netflix's employees are wrong about the way they feel. For that matter, I'm not even suggesting Netflix is right.
My argument isn't that Netflix should produce whatever it wants. My point is that if Netflix is going to produce content that some people might find divisive, it should be up front about that.
Being clear about the values that inform your decisions is incredibly important. The people who work for you deserve to know your values. They deserve to know what you stand for. Some of them won't agree with you--that's inevitable in any group of people.
Your job is to be sure everyone understands what principles you use to make decisions, and what they can expect. That way they can make their own decision about what is best for themself. That's exactly what Netflix is doing--it's making clear how it will act, in unambiguous terms, and giving employees (and future employees) the information they need to do the same.