BrewDog letter shows new generation of employees can call the shots - Stephen Jardine

Thirty years ago, Gerald Ratner stood up in the Albert Hall to make a speech to the Institute of Directors. What followed changed his life. In an off the cuff remark, Ratner described some of his own products as “total crap’.

BrewDog co-founders (left to right) James Watt and Martin Dickie. Watt apologised swiftly after a group letter from former staff alleged a "culture of fear" and "toxic attitude" was at the heart of the hugely successful craft beer business. PIC: Contributed.
BrewDog co-founders (left to right) James Watt and Martin Dickie. Watt apologised swiftly after a group letter from former staff alleged a "culture of fear" and "toxic attitude" was at the heart of the hugely successful craft beer business. PIC: Contributed.

The throwaway comment made the front pages and the rest is history. Ratner lost his business and his home. Looking back recently, he said “I paid a very big price for that joke”.

To this day, that experience is taught in business schools as an example of never taking your position for granted. Reputations are hard to make but easy to lose.

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In the world of drinks, Brewdog has had almost mythical status. Founders James Watt and Martin Dickie were maverick wunderkinds, challenging boring corporate culture and shaking up a tired and complacent industry.

With bars around the world, they could do no wrong in the eyes of their fans.

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Brewdog co-founder apologises after being accused of fostering a culture of fear...

However, some former staff tell a different story. In a bombshell letter published on Twitter on Thursday, a list of ex-employees alleged Brewdog was built on a “culture of fear” and a toxic attitude, leaving a significant number of former workers with mental health problems.

The allegations have the potential to be very damaging. At their heart is the suggestion that Brewdog is not the brand it claims to be. “For as long as any one of us can remember, we have never seen anything that has made us feel like BrewDog has lived the values it purports to uphold,” the letter said.

For a company built around attitude and passion, that is problematic and could make it much harder to market themselves as different from the corporate mainstream where marketing and reality are often at odds.

The response from James Watt was swift and apologetic.

"Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of that letter, but to listen, learn and act. We are committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always; and we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more. But most of all, right now, we are sorry."

Every company has disgruntled former employees, that is human nature. But when so many get together to challenge how a business is run and appears to the world, that is a problem that cannot be ignored.

All eyes will now be on Brewdog to see if their commitment to change is real and deep and goes beyond the spin they are famed for.

But before other companies enjoy too much corporate schadenfreude, this should be a wake up call for everyone.

The new generation of employees have different expectations from work. A recent poll for Gallup showed younger members of staff prioritise ethics and wellbeing over salary and promotion. They are also digital natives.

What was once talked about in whispered tones around the water cooler is now pulled together in group forums and posted on social media for the world. If there is a problem, it doesn’t take much for that to be shared with staff, customers and investors.

Corporate culture now matters more than ever but it’s not enough just to claim to be something. Nowadays you need to live the reality or be prepared to face the consequences.

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