30 current and former Mailchimp employees detail the conditions that led to a ‘mass exodus’ of women and people of color

mailchimp discrimination toxic work culture lead

Summary List Placement

On November 12, Mailchimp CEO Ben Chestnut sent a Slack message to his employees saying he “wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room.”

“We’ve had more people than usual leave the company lately, including some great leaders,” he said in the message, which was viewed by Insider.

Those departures included many of Mailchimp’s highest-ranking women and people of color. Since the start of 2020, Mailchimp has lost two female C-level executives, one female Chief Information Security Officer, one female vice president, and at least eight women or people of color at the director or senior director level.

Chestnut said he was “interested” in how these departures would impact Mailchimp’s diversity, and thanked its employee resource groups for “raising this concern,” but said higher attrition rates are “normal and expected for a high-growth company” like Mailchimp and that “there’s nothing going on behind the scenes that you should worry about.”

But Chestnut had apparently failed to mention possibly the biggest elephant in the room, which would soon spark a lot of worry among employees: Shareka Nelson, Mailchimp’s first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, would be leaving the company within a week, despite being hired barely a year earlier.

Nelson, a Black woman, came to Mailchimp from Facebook, where she worked on similar initiatives. The initial impression, a former employee said, was that Mailchimp had hired her to “do real DEI work, not just be a mouthpiece.” Nelson was genuinely committed to making Mailchimp more inclusive and equitable: she dug into pay data, asked executives to read books on racial justice, and held DEI meetings open to the whole company, current and former employees said.

But sources said that Nelson got scant buy-in from top executives at Mailchimp, a privately held digital marketing company and one of Atlanta’s most prominent tech firms. C-level executives rarely attended DEI meetings or prioritized DEI initiatives within their departments, and conversations about hiring, retention, and promotion metrics stagnated, according to current and former employees. When Mailchimp decided to hire its first vice president of culture and inclusion in July, it didn’t pick Nelson. Instead, it tapped one of HR chief Robin White’s former coworkers, Crystal Gaskin.

Nelson left several months later without a new job lined up, former employees said, reinforcing the perception among many insiders that Mailchimp’s leadership was unwilling to seriously tackle inequality or reward those who tried.

A Mailchimp spokesperson told Insider the company hired Gaskin “specifically because of her DEI expertise and to elevate the work,” and that Mailchimp “has had policies to promote pay equity as part of our regular compensation practices for years.”

But Insider spoke with more than 30 current and former Mailchimp employees who said there has been a “mass exodus” of women and people of color from the company in recent months because of what they saw as a lack of progress in addressing inequalities. Just as problematic is how, according to these sources, bullies and toxic leaders have seemingly been able to thrive at Mailchimp for years while it has ignored those who complain, eventually driving many of them away.

GettyImages 1205642493 LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 11: Global Diversity & Inclusion Head of MailChimp Shareka Nelson attends The 2020 MAKERS Conference on February 11, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)

Mailchimp’s leadership has known for years about instances of racism, sexism, and disparities in pay, promotions, job titles, and workplace conduct, according to current and former employees, some of whom have publicly shared their stories. Still, according to these sources, Mailchimp continued to reward white and male leaders, some of whom had been accused of misconduct including verbal abuse, sexism, and racism, while women and people of color said they’ve been underpaid, overworked, and denied promotions on top of enduring problematic behavior the company failed to address.

That double standard isn’t unique to Mailchimp, but current and former employees said they’re speaking up because of the gap between Mailchimp’s frequent public stands against injustices and its private refusals to acknowledge the extent of those injustices within its walls. Mailchimp’s problems, they said, are especially striking because it’s headquartered in Atlanta, where more than 50% of the population is Black. A Mailchimp spokesperson said 17.6% of the company’s employees are Black.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard employees share stories of negative experiences they had working at Mailchimp—some we knew about, and thought of as isolated incidents in a rapidly growing company. But others were new to us, and forced us to take a hard look at where we fell short,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Insider, while declining to comment on allegations about specific employees.

“We made space for our employees to continue sharing their experiences, concerns, and feedback so we could understand what needs to change and fix it. It became clear that over the years we’ve made the mistake of prioritizing business success over our culture. Our Co-founder and CEO, Ben Chestnut, apologized to employees and committed to resetting Mailchimp’s culture, sharing the first steps we’re taking to create a more respectful, inclusive, and equitable workplace for all of our employees,” they added.

When initially contacted by Insider in February, the spokesperson also said: “It’s also clear we haven’t been fully transparent about some of our People processes, including hiring and promotion practices and how we respond to allegations of misconduct and mistreatment. We’re making commitments to increase our transparency.”

A meeting with the CEO and support employees got heated

Mailchimp has had a tumultuous few weeks. In February, principal engineer Kelly Ellis quit and accused the company of “sexism and bullying” and pay bias. Insider reported that Mailchimp responded — the next day — by telling employees Ellis’ claims were “unsubstantiated” and denying any racial or gender pay equity issues existed.

But the following week, The Verge reported that Mailchimp employees had complained for years about “sexism, bias, and perceived pay disparities,” specifically highlighting extensive issues within the company’s customer support department. Other former employees quickly came forward with their own stories, and current employees resurfaced complaints internally.

Amid the crisis, Chestnut and Chief Customer Officer Carine Roman held a Q&A session last week with support employees to hear their concerns, but it quickly went off the rails, according to some in attendance. Employees said several testimonials became emotional and confrontational, with some accusing managers by name of problematic behavior. One manager who was mentioned during the meeting, when asked previously about DEI progress, had repeatedly referenced the department’s sole Black director and a transgender employee as evidence that upward mobility existed for diverse employees, according to current and former employees.

They said Tuesday’s meeting was the result of years of feeling neglected.

Mailchimp, which Chestnut and Dan Kurzius launched in 2000, generated $700 million in revenue during 2019 and has around 1,200 employees, according to a spokesperson. Support has typically been its largest department — and has historically had a larger percentage of Black employees than other departments, according to current and former employees. A MailChimp spokesperson told Insider that Black employees currently make up 20.3% of support, compared to 17.6% overall.

Support has also been one of Mailchimp’s lowest paid departments. Multiple current and former support agents said they started out making $35,000, and even after Mailchimp bumped agents’ starting salary to $45,000, many left for substantially higher paying jobs. The Verge reported that one senior support staffer earned just $48,000.

Advancement opportunities for Mailchimp’s support employees have also been limited, particularly for people of color.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Michael Jordan, you will never have the ability to go to an equivalent-level position elsewhere” within Mailchimp, a current support employee, who is a person of color, told Insider. “It’s pretty much like, ‘all right, you balled out, now you gotta start out at the bottom.'”

Mailchimp told The Verge that “career progression isn’t about moving out of the Customer department, but growing within it.” But current and former employees told Insider that, despite the department’s diversity, just one person of color has been promoted to senior manager in at least five years (that person has since quit). A spokesperson said Mailchimp promoted and hired women and people of color company-wide at higher rates than male and white employees, respectively, but wouldn’t comment on the diversity of support leadership.

Some current and former employees also said the working conditions, and tactics managers used to monitor agents’ productivity, were so anxiety inducing that they sought mental health treatment as a result. They said Mailchimp requires agents to resolve 18 tickets per day, work on three simultaneously, and maintain a 90% customer satisfaction rating (one said the daily quota used to be 35 tickets). One manager tracked agents down to the minute using a spreadsheet noting time gaps like “13 missing minutes,” according to documents viewed by Insider.

As it grew, Mailchimp moved its support department to a separate building a 10-minute drive away from its headquarters in the recently renovated Ponce City Market. Current and former employees said the productivity quotas made it impossible to take advantage of the many office perks and networking opportunities only available at Mailchimp’s main office. DEI advocate Erica Joy Baker, who visited Mailchimp in 2016, said its decision to move one of its most diverse teams “was kinda like unintentional segregation.” 

Ponce City Market, Atlanta, GA. Ponce City Market at Atlanta in Georgia. (Photo by: John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Complaints seemed to go unanswered

Current and former employees said they raised concerns about workplace problems dozens of times over the years, but that, in their experiences, Mailchimp has never been good at responding to criticism. They criticized the company’s “conflict averse” culture, saying it has allowed bullies — particularly white and male ones — to get away with mistreating coworkers, while those on the receiving end were left to either quit, endure mistreatment, or complain and risk retaliation.

Insider found at least five former Mailchimp employees who said they were fired or reprimanded just days or weeks after they reported concerns about issues including racism, sexism, verbal abuse by managers, and pay disparities.

Jennifer Konikowski, Mailchimp’s only female engineer during her tenure from 2011 to 2012, told Insider that her managers criticized her “tone” in a performance review and that a male coworker complained about her simply for disagreeing with a different coworker.

Unbeknownst to Konikowski at the time, her managers had explicitly conspired to get her to quit, according to Jared Van Aalten, who said he was in the room during their conversation. The managers worried firing Konikowski could be perceived as sexist, so they discussed giving her projects outside her skill and comfort zone to make her look bad and avoid suspicion, Van Aalten told Insider.

Konikowski quit, but her managers — both white men — were eventually promoted to senior management. Van Aalten said the promotions troubled him because one of those managers had called him a Nazi, despite knowing he’s Jewish. Multiple former Mailchimp employees also said that the manager questioned whether people with Down’s Syndrome were “real people” because they inherit an extra chromosome.

A former employee who quit in 2020 also said they had their quarterly bonus docked last year after complaining about their manager, despite receiving maximum bonuses in previous quarters. The manager justified the decision by claiming the employee hadn’t hit their performance goals, according to documents viewed by Insider — a claim the employee says was false.

“A number of the anonymous allegations that have been made are mischaracterizations of some of our leaders and events that occurred. Still, we can’t and won’t discount current and former employees’ experiences,” a Mailchimp spokesperson told Insider.

According to several current and former employees, misconduct complaints filed with Mailchimp’s HR department rarely seemed to result in disciplinary action — even after it formed a quasi-independent “employee relations” team within the department to specifically handle complaints.

Employees with knowledge of Mailchimp’s HR practices said complaints may have languished because investigations are ultimately referred to department heads, who can opt not to discipline a person found guilty. Current and former employees also said there was a belief among some at the company that department heads escaped consequences for verbal abuse, racism and sexism, and unfairly denying raises and promotions, because the only person who could take action, Chestnut, refused to.

“Just shut up and do it”

John Foreman, Mailchimp’s former Chief Product Officer who quit in January after a decade with the company, was one such executive, according to some current and former employees. These sources said Foreman consistently berated coworkers and made them cry on multiple occasions, prompting several complaints to HR.

Foreman did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Foreman once lashed out at his team via Slack about two junior engineers, both women of color, arguing they should be fired for not finishing a project at the rate expected of senior engineers, despite acknowledging the project was a success, according to documents viewed by Insider. Multiple current and former employees also said that Foreman didn’t like to give maximum bonuses across teams, even if they hit performance goals. One former employee who worked in Foreman’s department said their quarterly bonus was docked 5% despite hitting their goals.

Foreman’s tough standards apparently weighed on the department. An internal survey conducted last year by Mailchimp found that just 54% of its product employees believed there was “open and honest two-way communication” only 40% said the company was “fair and equitable in its promotion practices,” according to documents viewed by Insider. Mailchimp disputed those numbers, but did not provide correct ones. Still, Mailchimp promoted Foreman to the C-level after just a year as senior vice president.

Foreman ultimately left in January, likely because of his inability to get along with Chief Strategy Officer Simon Malkowski, according to multiple current employees, who said Malkowski was even more abrasive.

Around 2018, Mailchimp enlisted Boston Consulting Group, where Malkowski was working, for strategic advice. BCG’s consultants clashed with Mailchimp employees, bossing them around and taking credit for their work, according to current and former employees. BCG declined to comment on this story.

Apparently unaware of the waves the BCG team had caused, Mailchimp hired Malkowski directly into the C-suite in March 2020 as Chief Strategy Officer.

At Mailchimp, Malkowski was controlling, condescending, and disrespectful to coworkers, frequently showing up significantly late to meetings, according to current and former employees. In those meetings, employees present said, Malkowski often “ripped” subordinates, yelling comments like “let me explain to you how business works” and “just shut up and do it.”

Current and former employees said Malkowski tried to take over as much of Mailchimp’s operations as possible, but did so through controversial measures, such as hiring three of his former BCG coworkers — all white and a majority male. Malkowski tried to take over a team of analysts from Mailchimp’s product department by moving them to the strategy department, where he would be in charge of them, but when some quit because they had tired of the political infighting, he refused to let the team’s manager backfill those positions, according to people familiar with the situation, who said the team eventually dissipated and the manager quit. A Mailchimp spokesperson told Insider that “these were planned organizational changes we made to centralize all analytics teams under the strategy organization,” which is led by Malkowski, and that they were finalized in January.

Malkowski and Foreman collectively played a major role in “managing out” at least five female managers, current and former employees said. Some blamed Mailchimp’s seeming unwillingness to deal with conflict for the success of managers like Malkowski and Foreman. Those sources said that, not only did such managers create conflicts that the company seemed unwilling to resolve, but that by keeping Malkowski and Foreman around, Chestnut and other top leaders could avoid having to deal with conflict themselves.

Pay inequities and an incomplete study

As white men like Foreman, Malkowski, and Konikowski’s managers rose through Mailchimp’s ranks, current and former employees said, the company continued to underpay women and people of color. These sources said Mailchimp’s leadership has known about pay inequities for years and that its sole independent analysis, conducted by consulting firm Aon Radford, had significant flaws.

Aon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The study likely underestimated inequalities in compensation because it didn’t consider where employees fell within pay bands, which in some cases spanned as wide as $100,000, according to current and former employees (Insider has not seen the study). They also said the study didn’t seek input from people actually doing each job, meaning it may have missed instances where job responsibilities, titles, or promotions hadn’t been equitably distributed by managers.

Alina Lee joined Mailchimp in January 2020 with seven years of legal experience, including five years in marketing law — the focus of her new role. Mailchimp agreed to match the $175,000 base pay she made as senior counsel for Southern Company, a $60 billion utilities company, and give her a senior counsel title instead of their initial offer, corporate counsel, according to Lee and documents viewed by Insider.

But Lee said she eventually learned that her white and male coworkers in the legal department earned as much as $189,000, even though she had two more years of legal experience than two other senior counsels and the same as a third.

Lee asked her manager to raise her pay to $189,000. Two months later, she got an email from Mailchimp general counsel Scott Culpepper rejecting her request, and instead offering a one-time spot bonus of $3,000, roughly 1.7% of her base salary, on top of her max quarterly bonus (Lee said she had already received maximum bonuses in previous quarters for her performance).

Lee said she was most upset because her managers knew she’s “a very values-driven person” and that she explicitly told them she wouldn’t “feel sufficiently valued” if they didn’t pay her at least the same as coworkers with less experience.

Lee quit in January to start her own law practice. After initially requesting anonymity because she hoped to do business with Mailchimp, Lee ultimately told Insider to use her name because she thought it was “too important to stay silent” and that she could “make a bigger difference by saying something.”

A spokesperson said Mailchimp pays above market rates overall. But they also said that the company identified 176 underpaid employees — nearly 15% of its workforce — as part of an effort started in Q1 2020 to update salary levels and market rates. They also said Mailchimp has paid a company-wide annual bonus of at least 10% for the past nine years, and lets employees contribute 19% of their salaries to a 401(k) account while it matches 6%.

Some current and former employees said that while such perks are widely liked, they mask other ways in which Mailchimp underpays employees.

Last year, Mailchimp lowered merit pay raises to a maximum of 5% for “exceptional” employees, down from 6-7% in 2019, according to documents viewed by Insider. Mailchimp said the changes were temporary, unrelated to the pandemic, and would return to 2019 levels, according to current employees. But last week, Mailchimp announced raises between 4.5% and 5.5% for exceptional employees, and just 2% for those at or above the top of their salary band, according to documents viewed by Insider. That sparked outrage, employees said, given the subjectivity and difficulty that goes into achieving exceptional ratings.

Mailchimp also makes wide, subjective use of one-time “spot” bonuses, but didn’t count them as part of an employee’s total compensation in the Aon study, according to current and former employees.

Even before the Aon study, Mailchimp had started looking into pay equity internally, according to current and former employees, but Insider has been unable to confirm what came of those efforts.

“I want the bad people to go”

Despite the extensive issues they faced, the overwhelming majority of Mailchimp employees who spoke with Insider praised many of their coworkers and said they hoped that speaking out would lead to positive change for the company.

“I was already one foot out the door, but I could have been salvaged … had there been a turnaround where it would appear they were actually caring,” a former employee told Insider. “I’m leaving so upset, disappointed that this company failed me.”

“The thing that sucks about people leaving is that they wanted to make it work,” a current employee said.

Several employees said Mailchimp’s response to Ellis’ accusations, which they viewed as defensive and dismissive, was the final straw that caused them to quit. Others said, however, that Chestnut and certain other executives have recently appeared to be more serious about fixing Mailchimp’s problems than in the past.

“It’s not a bad company,” one current employee said. “All companies have their pile of s–t to deal with. I think the issue is that we focus on the good and exaggerate the things we’re doing well and refuse to focus on the things we’re not doing well.”

Following reporting by Insider and The Verge, Mailchimp internally announced several steps aimed at addressing DEI and other cultural issues, a spokesperson said, such as: oversight of HR investigations to ensure executives implement necessary disciplinary measures; mandatory unconscious bias and cultural sensitivity training for executives; additional budget for employee resources groups; internally sharing its DEI report, pay equity study, diversity data, adjustments to pay, promotion, and career development opportunities for support employees; and tying DEI goals to  executive pay.

That kind of accountability is long overdue, said one current female employee: “I don’t want to be pushed out because they were bad, I want the bad people to go … the people who are infectious and toxic should be the ones to go.”

Read the full list of changes Mailchimp plans to make:


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