Former employees at Australian tech darling Envato have criticised the startup for how it handles mothers returning to work, reports Dominic Powell in this piece first published on Smart Company and StartUpSmart..
The former employees also claimed Envato’s mid-to-upper management was largely dismissive of their concerns and mostly unequipped in helping mothers return to work, and were also unwilling to cooperate with HR to ameliorate the situations.
Envato’s office conditions were also alleged to be unsuitable for mothers, with women reporting they were walked in on while breastfeeding, and having breast milk spoiled after fridges were turned off overnight.
The company is rumoured to be valued at $1 billion, and has long been held up as a shining example of a successful Australian startup, being completely bootstrapped, profitable and started in a garage by founders Collis and Cyan Ta’eed.
The company has regularly won ‘best place to work’ awards, including an award for being Australia’s ‘coolest company for women’ in 2015.
However, women who have had children while working at the company claim these accolades are “disingenuous”, and believe their pleas for change in the company fell on deaf ears, resulting in them leaving to find different jobs.
Landing the dream role
Kate Hunter was a former organic growth manager at Envato who started working at the company in late-2015. She tells StartupSmart landing a job at the startup was a relief, as she was thinking about having children and had heard good things about the company’s support for female employees.
“When I started I had a discussion with the hiring manager and said I was serious about my career, but I was also serious about starting a family at some point. And they were so supportive of that. They told me I was in a safe place for whenever I decided to move ahead with having kids,” she says.
“I really felt like I’d landed a dream role at a dream company.”
In late-2016, more than a year after starting her job at Envato, Hunter informed the company she was 12 weeks’ pregnant. She says at the time everyone was “lovely” about the news, but her experience quickly turned sour.
Four months prior, Hunter had been given an expanded role with a new remit and responsibilities, something she said she’d worked hard to get. After announcing her pregnancy, her manager started to float the idea of moving her expanded remit into a different part of Envato.
“I told him I’d worked really hard to get that role, and the role without the expanded remit wouldn’t be of interest to me, but he kind of brushed me off,” she says.
At the same time, just two months before Hunter was scheduled to go on maternity leave, the company had still not advertised for her backfill. She says this meant she felt under more pressure about her pregnancy, and was made to feel like an inconvenience.
“I didn’t feel like I was in a safe environment for my career as a pregnant woman. I did not feel like that while I was on leave, or when I returned. Basically, all my worst fears around having a child and wanting a career were realised.”
“There was this impression that I was a big inconvenience because they had to hire someone, and having to hire backfill was just one more thing they had to do because of me,” she says.
“And then when they did advertise my role, they didn’t actually advertise it with my job title or with my complete remit.”
At this point, Hunter said her “heart sank”, believing this was a sign of things to come, and that her role would be drastically different upon her return, or that she might be made redundant.
Despite raising her concerns with her manager, she was brushed off again, and was told to wait and see how it looked when she came back from maternity leave.
“I felt like I just had to fall in line and it just didn’t seem like I could argue. I was heavily pregnant, with work coming out my ears, so this was just one more decision I couldn’t really deal with,” she says.
Failure to communicate maternity leave
A senior member of Hunter’s team ended up stepping into her position, and she left in February 2017 to go on maternity leave. However, three months into her leave she was called into Envato for a meeting, with the company requesting her help to launch a project she’d developed the year prior.
“They told me they really needed me to do it, but then also told me it was going to happen with or without me. They pretty much told me I might as well get involved now, because I’d have to fix everything up they’d broken when I got back,” she says.
“And so it wasn’t really a choice.”
Hunter decided to use her keeping-in-touch days to work one day a week on the project. However, she says Envato failed to notify the rest of the company about the part-time nature of her work, leading to others in the company believing she was back and working on her usual remit.
“I actually started getting emails about the wider remit of work from people who didn’t know I was still on maternity leave, and I was asked to come to big meetings, which was all really stressful,” she says.
“And it started to make me look like a jerk, or incompetent, because people would ask a relatively simple question, and I’d have to explain that I have no idea what’s going on.”
After communicating her concerns to her manager, Hunter says he “literally begged” her to stay working on the project, so she continued.
‘Are you planning on having another baby?’
It was about this time Hunter started to talk to a number of other women who had similar experiences. One of these women, who requested to remain anonymous, told StartupSmart her issues began after returning from maternity leave.
“I came back and expected to get my role back in all of its glory, but there was no conversation with my manager and my backfill about who was responsible for what,” she says.
“There was no formal conversation that I was actually getting my position back, it was all very vague.”
Her backfill also had her contract renewed, which left the former employee feeling like the work environment had become more competitive, as her new responsibilities were never outlined to her.
The former employee says she also had “opportunist” questions from senior, male managers about if she was planning on having another baby, and says she “never really felt settled back into my role”.
Upon returning from maternity leave, Hunter says she also faced issues with her role, as her expanded responsibilities had been moved into a different part of the business. She was told to wait and see, and that the business was restructuring part of her team, and in the weeks leading up to her return she says Envato failed to properly facilitate her return to work.
“It was a week and a half away from my return and my manager still hadn’t done any of the handover documents or briefs, despite me sending him quite a few reminders. So one week before I returned, I sent an email to my team asking if I could get a one-pager on the highlights from the past year so we were all on the same track,” she says.
Hunter immediately received a response from her manager telling her the business still had not checked with her backfill about how they felt about her returning.
“To be honest, I burst into tears. I was already feeling insecure and stressed out, and now I was being told I’d done the wrong thing by asking for something completely reasonable. All because of how my backfill is going to feel about me coming back?”
“It was just another example of having my whole pregnancy and maternity leave treated as an inconvenience,” she adds.
Walked in on while breastfeeding
The anonymous former employee also experienced further difficulties on her return to work, saying she saw other employees given career development opportunities ahead of her. At the time, she was working four days a week, and asked her manager if working full-time would increase her likelihood of being considered for promotion.
“He told me he didn’t know, and at that point, I knew I had to go five days a week so I could operate in my role and be considered for promotion,” she says.
Envato’s office facilities were also not fit for purpose, the former employee alleges, saying the ‘parents’ room’ was regularly used as a meeting room by HR and didn’t have a functional lock.
“So if they needed to get access to the room for any reason they’d use a card to get the door open, and sometimes that was done while you were pumping milk, at a time of vulnerability,” she says.
“Also frequently, the fridge was turned off by the cleaner, so if you happened to store your breast milk in the fridge overnight, it was essentially spoiled.”
Hunter and four other women, including the former employee, took their concerns to Collis Ta’eed, Envato’s co-founder. Hunter says the co-founder was shocked by the news and very sympathetic, and wrote a “great” summary which was shared anonymously with the whole company.
“We all felt heartened by that, and felt like we were taken seriously and were heard,” Hunter says.
But despite the intention, the two say none of Envato’s management behaviours changed, leading to the entire group of women eventually resigning.
Hunter says despite trying every week to find out if she was going to receive her full expanded role back, she was effectively stonewalled by her manager, and eventually had to rope HR in for a meeting. Only then did the manager admit the company was permanently changing her role.
She says she felt like her pregnancy was used as an opportunity to restructure the business “without needing to have a difficult conversation”.
“He just waited me out and waited for me to fall in line. This wouldn’t have happened to any other woman who wasn’t pregnant, it wouldn’t happen to any man. In my situation, it got used as a vulnerability,” she says.
The other former employee felt similarly and said, in the end, she left after realising the company was unable to accommodate what she needed as a professional woman and as a mother.
“By the end, I just felt completely disenfranchised,” she says.
New policies not enough
Last year, Envato announced a number of new parental leave policies, a move the company said had been spurred on by seeing a number of women “not knowing how to navigate juggling childcare aspects along with returning to part-time work”.
The company also called for more progressive parental leave policies broadly across the tech sector as a way to address gender diversity in Australian startups.
Both former employees believe the picture painted of Envato as being a fantastic place for women to work is largely disingenuous, but are hopeful the new policies have seen the company change its practices.
However, they believe the policies will only go so far to change the issues in the company, which they believe are cultural, and largely due to a “masculine-dominated mid-management team” who were at a disconnect with the business’ HR department.
“The inference of the article from last year is that parents weren’t coping with coming back to work, which actually wasn’t true. What was actually dysfunctional was the mid-management structure,” Hunter says.
“There were managers who didn’t know they shouldn’t do things like set meetings for times when parents were picking their kids up from school, or on our days off.”
Both former employees believe policy changes are only as good as the managers who put them into practice, and believe the company should put more focus on the training and governance of its middle management. StartupSmart understands the managers both employees dealt with are still employed at the company.
“I didn’t feel like I was in a safe environment for my career as a pregnant woman. I did not feel like that while I was on leave, or when I returned. Basically, all my worst fears around having a child and wanting a career were realised,” Hunter said.
“It’s not like I was quiet about it either. I spoke to management, I spoke to the CEO, but there was no resolution.”
“If this is the experience at the company that’s the best place to work for women, and is well known for its great policies, then what’s it like at every other company?”
Envato: “We recognise there is more to do”
In a statement to StartupSmart, Ta’eed said it was clear the company had not done enough to support its staff returning from parental leave and said it was “upsetting” the company hadn’t delivered. The co-founder said he’d met with the group of new parents in late-2017, and at the time it was “clear that we’d not been the employer we aim to be”.
“We kicked off a sequence of things to address that feedback. Some things were small immediate changes like more frequent check-ins with new parents on how they are transitioning back. While others are longer-term changes around extra training for managers, working closely with some of the management staff involved in these cases, more closely reviewing role changes occurring around a parent on leave, and new ways to communicate more effectively with parents returning to work,” Ta’eed said.
“Responsibility to create a smooth and positive transition back to work lies with us as a company.”
Ta’eed said at no stage had Envato sought to ‘blame’ parents for their transition back to work, and pointed to the article from late last year as the company’s efforts to enhance its policies. However, he noted it had more to do, and pledged to continue to work on it.
This includes expanded training for management and leaders in the business to ensure they better conduct themselves when overseeing parental leave responsibilities, with the company noting it had “high expectations” in those areas.
“We are an employer that cares about our staff. We have put in place many policies since we were founded to create a positive work environment for our team, including supporting both women and men on extended paid parental leave and in their return to work,” he said.
“We recognise that we’re on a long journey towards creating the best possible environment for staff, one that represents our values. We know there is more to do, and we’re committed to honest reflection and iterative improvement.”
This article first appeared on Smart Company.