A tale of toxicity and redemption(?): learnings from BrewDog’s culture crisis
On the 9th of June 2021, Punks With Purpose published an open letter to BrewDog flagging concerns about the way the brand was operating, particularly in its culture and treatment of its staff. The letter attracted considerable attention and went on to be signed by over 300 current and former…
Brand Spotlight | Talent Brand

On the 9th of June 2021, Punks With Purpose published an open letter to BrewDog flagging concerns about the way the brand was operating, particularly in its culture and treatment of its staff. The letter attracted considerable attention and went on to be signed by over 300 current and former employees.

In this article, we explore the actions BrewDog have taken to address these culture concerns over the past year. Read on to find out what steps they are taking to rebuild their culture and employer brand and, importantly, analyse if it’s working…

‘BrewDog was, and is, built on a ‘cult of personality’ … ‘growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company.’

Punks With Purpose

The open letter asserted that BrewDog’s culture is dominated by fear and that it stemmed directly from co-founder, James Watt. In the aftermath of the letter, Watt posted an apology admitting that

on many occasions, we haven’t got it right. We are committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always.

James Watt CEO BrewDog

In response, BrewDog commissioned an independent culture review, carried out by consultancy firm Wiser. The review found that the company’s structure and policies hadn’t matured in line with its growth, particularly concerning HR, progression and communication. As a result, many staff felt unsupported.

Wiser asked current and former employees to compare their expectations of BrewDog’s culture with the reality of working there. They scored below expectations in:

  • Leadership & management
  • Purpose & values
  • Wellbeing & belonging
  • Psychological safety
  • Progression & development

A roadmap for a culture revision: The BrewDog Blueprint

In May 2022 the ‘BrewDog Blueprint’ set out their people plan, based on the recommendations made in the Wiser report. The Blueprint mission statement asserts

“We are determined to create a completely new type of business model. One where our team members are truly connected to the business, and where every single person in the team benefits from the growth and success that we collectively create”

BrewDog BluePrint

Strategies implemented include:

  • Hiring 600 new staff to ease bottlenecks
  • ‘HopStock’ employee ownership programme
  • ‘BrewDog 50/50’ – bars share 50% profits with staff
  • BrewDog alumni club
  • Employee representative group
  • Mental health first aid support
  • ‘Top Dogs’ monthly awards
  • DE&I forum
  • Pawternity leave – 1 week of paid leave for a new dog
  • Brewdog academy – online training hub
  • Independently managed ethics hotline

But will the BrewDog Blueprint make a positive difference?

The Wiser review suggests that current employees are happier than former employees in several key areas. Suggesting that BrewDog’s culture has improved in recent months.

For BrewDog, increasing headcount was a key first step to alleviate fundamental challenges such as employees feeling overworked. Monetary benefits such as the Hopstock and BrewDog 50/50 are certainly generous gestures. However, companies must ensure that staff are appropriately paid for their role rather than relying on bonuses or similar schemes. Remember, money isn’t everything and in a post-Covid climate, we’re seeing more people choose purpose over pay. Surprisingly, the expected post-pandemic rush back to the office barely happened and over the past two years people have had the opportunity to reflect on their priorities. As people evaluate what they want from their careers, workplace culture ranks highly among employees’ reasons for moving jobs.

Some of these strategies, such as ‘Pawternity leave’ could come across as a gimmick. However, the company has implemented strategies that go beyond clickbait niceties. For example the ‘BrewDog independent ethics hotline’ shows a commitment to change, giving staff a secure way to report instances of toxic behaviour. The Employee Representative Group (ERG) have already produced actions, including a new sick pay scheme and enhancement of their welfare space. A robust relationship between the ERG and leadership team will be vital to ensuring continued improvements to workplace culture. Overall, these strategies indicate a commitment to improving the experience of BrewDog’s employees.

Of course, there’s no quick fix when it comes to rebuilding workplace culture. Yes, the Wiser review showed signs of positive change. However, BrewDog should consider whether employees felt secure enough to give honest answers to the questions asked. There is a follow-up review due at the end of 2022, which will allow us to evaluate these strategies further

What can organisations learn from the BrewDog story?

Be aware of the dangers of growing too fast too quickly

A recurring theme in the Wiser review was that BrewDog’s policies weren’t keeping up with growth.

Brewdog has evolved at such a rapid pace, but the changing faces of HR has led to inconsistencies with the support employees have experienced. The current team hasn’t had the investment it needs and is small compared to the industry average, leaving people feeling they don’t have the support they need.’

Wiser

Watt acknowledges these growing pains in an article posted on LinkedIn stating that

‘Ours is the story is a young company and an inexperienced leadership team very much growing up in public…The lesson here – don’t let growth, even if it feels exciting at the time, come at the expense of looking after your people.

JAmes Watt CEO BrewDog

BrewDog’s new Chairperson, former chief executive of Asda Allan Leighton, will also serve as a mentor to Watt providing guidance on leadership and governance.

Invest in your people

Whatever stage of growth your company is at, it is essential that you give your employees the HR support they need. For example, start-ups need a solid foundation of HR policies that will ensure compliance and save time and headaches in the future. For scale-ups, a comprehensive onboarding process will set new starters up for success and establish the culture you want to create from day one. While SMEs should focus on giving employees a voice and ensuring that there are systems in place to allow for feedback at all levels of your company. At Morson, we equip businesses of all sizes with HR skills, data, and expertise through our HR outsourcing solutions.

Provide safe spaces

Safety isn’t just about PPE, workers also need to feel safe to express their opinions without fear of repercussion and trust that they will be listened to.

Wiser found that in the current BrewDog culture

‘Some employees feel uncomfortable speaking up and challenging. This is partly related to James’ previous demanding leadership style and the way decisions were made in previous eras.’

Wiser

By creating an environment where feedback is given freely and received empathetically your employees will be much more likely to share their concerns. Listening to concerns and acting upon them will prevent small problems from snowballing into bigger issues later.

It’s easier to cultivate a positive workplace culture than fix a toxic one

If you don’t look after the employees you have, it will become increasingly difficult to attract new talent. BrewDog has always courted controversy in their brand and leant into their ‘punk’ image. Their identity as rebels of the brewing industry heavily relied on Watt. As a result customers identified with the brand, but it also left the CEO vulnerable to criticisms of dissatisfied employees. BrewDog is no longer a challenger brand, they’re market leaders, so while they may still be punks at heart, their company culture needs to reflect the scale of operations.

Technology, social media and career review sites such as Glassdoor have dramatically changed the way we recruit and retain talent. Allow Morson to lift your employer brand and ensure that top candidates want to work for you by engaging our Digital Studio team. Our employer brand and marketing team offers a range of services curated to engage, nurture and create awesome candidate experiences through personification, personalisation, effortless application and interaction. Each of our services enables businesses to harness the power of digital to increase brand visibility, attract and excite the best and most relevant talent for their organisation. To find out more, email Digital Studio Lead rebekah.lee@morson.com.

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