Worship of the Written Word

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In this series, I’m exploring the influence of white supremacy culture on tech (and broadly, professional) culture, following Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s list of characteristics as a guide. Here’s the introduction and the full series so far.

Let’s talk about the fifth element of white supremacy culture: worship of the written word.

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Here’s the description of Worship of the Written Word, verbatim:

Worship of the Written Word

  • If it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist
  • the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information gets shared
  • those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission

I’m sure your microwave is already buzzing away on the popcorn you plan to eat while watching a blogger unload on a critique of “Worship of the Written Word.”

It’s not gonna be like that.

Well, it is kinda gonna be like that—but not for the reasons you’re thinking.

In my experience at tech companies, it’s not universally true that “If it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist.”

Instead memos provide an excuse for people in positions of power to discount perspectives that they think would be too annoying, too time consuming, or downright detrimental to consider. Usually, that’s perspectives that differ from theirs, or that they’re worried would expose them as lacking all the pieces of the puzzle on their own (we’ll get to individualism later in this series).

Bob and Doug can make a critical decision in an undocumented hallway conversation over coffee, and the business is perfectly fine with that…because it’s Bob and Doug. Mary should have been involved, but since she didn’t happen to be at the coffee encounter, she isn’t. Neither Bob nor Doug value her input enough to go find her or cut off the conversation and say “Let’s stop talking about this and set a meeting with Mary.”

I have seen key people, especially from marginalized groups, get cut out of conversations “by accident” that they should have led. It’s an accident in the sense that Bob and Doug didn’t explicitly think about cutting Mary out. It’s not an accident that it never even occurred to Bob and Doug that they shouldn’t come to this conclusion by themselves without Mary’s input.

That’s systemic: some members of the company get more latitude to make rogue decisions. Leadership is comfortable with Bob and Doug: amicable guys, similar worldview to leadership, not likely to get “abrasive” or say anything too challenging. So the ability to relate to others is valued over documentation—except that it’s specifically the ability to relate to those who have already accumulated power.

In this case, “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist” would  protect Mary’s influence on the decision that her colleagues made without her, on accident. Bob and Doug, by and large, aren’t gonna amble back to their desks, finish their coffee, and draw up a memo. They don’t need to. What if they did? What if we had written evidence that a decision within Mary’s purview had been made without Mary’s signature anywhere on the document? The requirement that something be in writing is a problem by dint of the fact that the requirement only applies to certain people.

In fact, sometimes it’s actively discouraged.

The absence of a memo is deliberate in some cases.

HR departments strategically use lack of documentation to cover things up. A manager who wants to tell an employee they’re too “abrasive” and worries that somebody might “take it the wrong way” prefers to share his thoughts in a phone call or meeting.

HR departments explicitly recommend this practice to managers who they don’t trust to keep it PC. HR’s job is to protect the company, and they know that the company probably won’t lose a lawsuit over something that nobody can prove that anybody said.

I’ve seen this happen. HR knows who their legal risks are. They mitigate those risks by encouraging clueless bucks in positions of power to lean towards meetings/phone calls and away from emails.

By contrast, when it’s a diversity-related memo that a manager definitely wants credit for having sent, not only is it written down, but also he has asked at least two people at the company with marginalized identities to set aside their jobs for enough time to serve as his sensitivity editors. (He also expects these people to be grateful for the opportunity he has so generously bestowed on them, even if it does not relate at all to their actual jobs).

I also cannot speak to documentation/writing skills being highly valued in tech.

I see a lot of powerful people at tech companies assume the least powerful person at the table is going to take notes. Moreover, I can’t say I have often seen these powerful people refer to those notes later. So I don’t believe the argument I see especially in women’s tech fora (I say women here not to de-center racism, but because those are the fora where I see this argument) that it’s okay if the woman is asked to take the notes all the time because that means she controls the narrative about what happened. She doesn’t. Decision-makers aren’t referring to her notes: they’re going off their memory of the meeting.

I have also observed teams of multiple engineers, that have built and maintained a software product over multiple years, decide on the auspicious occasion of hiring a marginalized person that It’s Time To Document This. That job, of course, will fall to the new person, who spends a lot of time raking together READMEs and Google docs while the preexisting team gets to chug along on more code (which is the task for which engineers receive meaningful rewards with long-term career implications).

Look, I get the argument that put-it-in-writing rules arbitrarily legitimize one particular form of communication. I also see these rules applied specifically to folks who have accumulated less power, while they’re waived for folks who either have power, or who make people who have power feel comfortable.

Black colleagues who don’t write stuff down will be penalized for it. Meanwhile, I can think of a dozen white CEOs whose refusal to read emails or write even the briefest of notes, preferring conversations or phone calls, is pardoned as part and parcel with their purported maverick nature. The other day a one-word email from Tim Cook got lauded by Inc as a “master class in emotional intelligence.”

The Bar. Is on. The ground.
The Bar. Is on. The ground.

I wish I could get away with something like that (let alone have it applauded in a widely-read publication). I prefer conversations, too. But I write everything down, because I need shit documented when people inevitably won’t take me at my word.

Given that I see “worship of the written word” as a hollow obstacle used at the powerful’s discretion to enforce their biases rather than a staple on the corporate altar, I don’t know that I can speak to the effectiveness of the strategies recommended for removing it from the altar.

Let’s look at the antidotes here.

Antidotes:

  • take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information
  • Figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening
  • Work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization (for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission);
  • Make sure anything written can be clearly understood (avoid academic language, ‘buzz’ words, etc.)

 1. Take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information.

I 100% agree that it would be beneficial to take time to analyze how people get and share information. In particular, in my admittedly limited experience, some people prefer a conversation, and others prefer writing. As an educator, I try to provide students with both options as often as I can. As a consultant working from quarantine in a pandemic, that’s harder. I can only take so much Zoom. But we’re trying.

At most organizations, whether people prefer writing or conversation, folks in power get their preference. Folks who don’t have power don’t get to pick—or they face a magical barrier that looks like “whichever medium you didn’t use this time is the one we care about right now” when really the issue is “We’re in charge and we’re not thrilled about the idea of hearing you out” (see defensiveness, which we discussed right here).

 2. Figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening.

Once again, I love the idea in theory. In practice, documentation errs on the side of protecting the marginalized. Viable alternatives need to take that into account.

 3. Work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization (for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission);

Agreed. All kinds of skills contribute to an organization’s success, and organizations tend to have rather arbitrary structures of which skills are valued and rewarded that do not accurately reflect how the project actually got done. That means fixing the reward structure to better acknowledge skills like relationship building. (And not with rewards like a trophy at the annual company picnic. I mean money, responsibility, and other rewards that meaningfully contribute to a career progression).

 4. Make sure anything written can be clearly understood (avoid academic language, ‘buzz’ words, etc.)

As a writer, I can vouch that this is a skill. As with any skill, members of our organization will be more keen to develop it if it is rewarded.

Conclusion

In my experience at tech companies, it’s not universally true that “If it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist.”

Rather, this, like a lot of mental gymnastics performed by people in positions of power, is used as an excuse to discount perspectives that they think would be too annoying, too time consuming, or downright detrimental to consider.

So I get the argument that we arbitrarily legitimize one particular form of communication. I also see these rules applied specifically to folks who have accumulated less power, while they’re waived for folks who either have power, or who make people who have power feel comfortable.

At most organizations, whether people prefer writing or conversation, folks in power get their preference. Folks who don’t have power don’t get to pick—or they face a magical barrier that looks like “whichever medium you didn’t use this time is the one we care about right now” when really the issue is “We’re in charge and we’re not thrilled about the idea of hearing you out.”

There’s plenty of work we can do in the areas of uplifting, legitimizing, and rewarding communication styles and skills outside of writing and documentation. But I think that our existing power structures will keep looking for scapegoats, like the discretionary legitimization of different tactics at different times, to preserve the existing hierarchy and the comfort of those at the top.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The rest of the posts in the (brand new!) inclusion category

The series about reducing job interview anxiety (especially for folks with a little experience)

The cost-effectiveness of pair programming (for folks who feel strongly drawn to working with others!)

3 comments

  1. I’ve been following this series silently, trying to take it in, letting it challenge my views when necessary. But I did want to zero in on one thing you said in this installment: “HR departments strategically use lack of documentation to cover things up.”

    In 31 years in tech, 23 of them in some level of management, I’ve never, ever, seen or experienced this. If anything, the HR departments I’ve worked with have always wanted *more* documentation, much more. They would rather root out someone whose behavior is putting the company at risk than cover them up.

    Anecdotes are not data, of course. But this one thing in your post does not in any way match my experience.

    • Hi Jim,

      I appreciate your attention to this series! I also appreciate your perspective on HR and recognize that many folks with extensive management experience in tech at this point in time may have a similar one. HR departments do want as much documentation as possible when the goal is to root out someone whose behavior they see as putting the company at risk.

      However, situations that WE might interpret as “Person A’s discriminatory behavior is putting the company at risk” sometimes the COMPANY interprets as “evidence of Person A’s behavior from Person B who ‘took it the wrong way’ is putting the company at risk.” In this situation, an HR department sees Person B as the behavioral risk, rather than Person A, and the effort to document failures targets Person B, sparing the discriminatory Person A.

      If you’d like to read about some experiences that might differ from yours, I’ll recommend three that I happen to know of (links below). All of these are detailed stories about situations at companies that either ended poorly for a marginalized employee, or ended well for that employee but only after a lot of strife.

      Of particular note: the role of documentation in each of these stories. At what points did managers and HRBPs want documentation? At which points did they ignore documentation? At which points were conversations specifically happening face-to-face? At which points should perpetrators have experienced consequences—and did they? What role did documentation have to play in how those played out?

      It’s an oft-repeated phrase among closed circles of tech workers with marginalized identities: “HR’s job is to protect the company, not to protect you.” It’s usually met with an eye roll, a nod, and a chuckle. I think the following stories shed some light on why.

      https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber

      https://where.coraline.codes/blog/my-year-at-github/

      https://chelseatroy.com/2018/06/01/can-we-rethink-imposter-syndrome/

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