I work on the academics side of a division one athletics department, and when I first started about five years ago, most people showed up to work in athletic apparel. Not that any of us were coaches, but we sure looked like them. Track pants and gym shirts were the office normal.
Then one day, the athletic director informed us that we needed to — at the very least — wear presentable jeans and collared shirts. And let me tell you, people were shook. There were arguments, hurt feelings, and one guy told us all he was going to quit. Long story short, people take workplace rules to heart, and so when I heard that working at Netflix meant there were no rules, I couldn’t help but pay attention.
According to a recent NPR interview with Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings, working at Netflix means unlimited vacation, no dress code (just don’t show up naked), and no need to get company expenses approved. “It’s risky trusting employees as much as we do. Giving them as much freedom as we do,” Hastings said. “But it’s essential in creative companies where you have much greater risk from lack of innovation.” Naturally, he credits Netflix’s lack of rules to the company’s rise in success.
And to be real, Netflix is a big deal. At least to me, and to many millions of viewers. Netflix has added 26 million new users so far this year, pushing its subscriber base near 200 million worldwide. A lot of its success is based on original innovative programming, like Stranger Things and The Irishman. And I know, everyone is wondering when I will bring up Tiger King, and well … I don’t know if I want to use the word innovative when describing that show. But what I will say, is that it was incredibly buzzworthy. I mean, wow. Just wow.
Of course, there are a lot of ways that having no rules in a workplace can come out sideways, and one way that has been discussed time and time again is that working in Netflix’s no-rules culture is not about workplace stability. According to a 2018 article in Vanity Fair titled “Working at Netflix Sounds Absolutely Terrifying,” Netflix has one rule that it does hold to pretty tightly: “keep only our highly effective people.”
Thus, this twist on workplace expectations and culture isn’t about working hard. It’s about being innovative, and if you are a hard working employee, but you are bringing B-level ideas to the table (which is subjective), you will find yourself out of a job. In fact, going back to Hastings interview with NPR, he addresses this by saying, “Our culture memo says things like adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” Thus, if you are looking for a place where ideas matter and critical feedback is taken on the chin, Netflix is for you. However, if you are looking for a place where you feel secure and elbow grease is valued, I would not recommend applying to work for Netflix.
In fact, in a 2018 Wall Street Journal investigation in which the newspaper spoke to 70 current and former Netflix employees, the culture at the company was described at times as ruthless and transparent “to the point of dysfunction.” Some employees said people of color did not feel as empowered as their white colleagues to offer frank feedback. Some felt so much pressure that they quit before they could get canned.
Sometimes the no-rules culture backfires in other ways — like when the company isn’t interested in approving company expenses. In Hastings’ book No Rules Rules, he actually discussed a situation where an employee working in Taiwan billed Netflix a whopping $100,000 for personal travel. Of course the employee was fired. But since there is no approval process, this humongous cashout for personal travel went unnoticed for three years. “The challenge of freedom is that it can be abused,” Hastings said, shrugging it off in his NPR interview. “There are very few people who do abuse it, but it’s a pity when it happens.”
All in all, what Netflix is doing is a serious twist on how to run a workplace. And clearly it is not for everyone. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I consider myself a pretty creative person — but I also really gravitate to job security, and without that, I don’t know how long I would last.
Still, what Netflix is doing does seem to be working. The streaming platform continues to grow, and has stayed in the number one spot for many years. And when something works for one company, other companies will follow their lead. So don’t be surprised when the dress code at your place of business goes out the window in the name of innovation.
But of course, don’t forget that showing up naked is frowned upon.