“Burnout culture”, “Golden externally, toxic internally”, “disastrous management”… Since January, testimonies have been raining down on an anonymous Instagram account, followed by 186,000 subscribers: “Balance Ta Start-Up” (BTSU). Or rather “Balance Ta Scale-Up”? Half of the companies pinned down by (ex-) employees are no longer really start-ups: Lydia, Doctolib, Iziwork or even Swile quickly changed scale, after fundraising of several million Pounds.
On most start-up LinkedIn pages, we proudly display: “Hiring! “(” We are hiring “). Because to recruit is to grow, and scale-ups' appetite for human capital is insatiable. Albert (his name has been changed) has been working in the start-up world for several years and can attest to this. He started his career at Souscritoo, which later became Papernest: it was then a start-up of 25 people who took care of the administrative formalities related to removals. When he left it, three years later, it had nearly 300. Today, 650 of them are employed there. He remembers : “Some weeks I spent 30 to 40% of my time recruiting, a lot of interns leaving every six months. “Recruitment is so urgent that there is no time for formalized procedures, which often, in these young structures, have not yet been put in place.
Recruit quickly and not always well
Virgile Raingeard knows the issue well: he held HR positions at Criteo then at Comet, a platform for connecting IT freelancers, before launching a salary benchmark platform for… start-ups last year. He finds that “Most of the time, for a managerial position, for example, we take the internal person who is the most experienced rather than recruiting from outside”. And without always having the time to train her in management …
There is also co-optation. And the paths are clear: many consultants from large firms are coming to make their second part of their career in scale-ups. This can pose problems of social diversity. At Doctolib (1,500 employees, 70 to 100 new recruits per month), the problem has been raised several times on BTSU – “Promotions are given by cronyism” – or on Glassdoor (site where current and former employees of companies assess their work environment anonymously) – “Very little diversity at the head office: same profiles, same schools, often friends between them”. Doctolib says it is sensitive to these feedbacks, but considers that they do not reflect the more global feedback it has (on the recruitment process or even from regular evaluation by employees). The unicorn claims to have accomplished in-depth work to identify business and behavioral skills across all functions. “These are the bases which allow us to make the hiring criteria more objective and which also support internal mobility and promotions”, we are told.
For start-ups that don't do this job well, hiring and promoting quickly inevitably results in casting errors and / or pressure that is difficult for new entrants to bear. “You can feel that the founders have no time to waste. They are forced to favor decisions that ensure the survival of the company in the short or medium term, sometimes to the detriment of certain rules. As an employee, you need to learn and progress quickly to gain autonomy and participate in growth ”, adds Albert, the ex-employee of Papernest, a scale-up which has however only been rarely mentioned on BTSU and where, according to him, there is no bad culture.
Result: turnover is often high. On the Instagram account, some even evoke forced conventional breaks. Elise Fabing, a lawyer specializing in labor law, regularly manages such cases and has just launched a podcast to learn how to negotiate her departure. “Few people go to the industrial tribunal, because it is a small world: they do not want to ‘burn themselves' with future employers”, she regrets.
From glitter to burnout
Modeled on the Silicon Valley model, the English “start-up nation” gives itself a family image where everyone is driven by a mission and gives themselves without counting their hours. On BTSU, we can read: “Heard at chefing: ‘If you're on the left, a Trotskyist, a Marxist and you're complaining because you're doing more than 35 hours, there's no point in coming.' “ For Virgile Raingeard, this mentality is inherited from an American culture of “hustle” or “grit”, two terms that evoke competition and relentlessness: “There are people who look for that: a job where you get high, with the aim of having shares or setting up their own company afterwards. “
We drink shots, we play table football… and there may not be any problems, but when there is, it's ultra-violent.
Beyond the process deficit and the culture of excelling specific to the start-up ecosystem, the personality of the founder can be another factor of managerial drifts. Toxic personality traits among “founders” are discussed on BTSU. “Some entrepreneurs have created a cult around them, like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. We ask them to be charismatic to raise funds, they are put on a pedestal, explains Virgile Raingeard. Of course, it depends on the personalities. Some use it to humiliate… others, on the contrary, to inspire, like Charles Thomas, the CEO of Comet. They said that the secret to the success of the club was that we were all secretly in love with him. “
Relations between founders, managers and employees oscillate between fascination and authority. Elise Fabing, lawyer, sees it as specific to the world of start-ups: “The line between professional and private life is blurred. The investment is disproportionate compared to the remuneration and the job description. We drink shots, we play table football… and there may not be any problems, but when there is, it's ultra-violent. In case of overwork, we can have the impression of lacking loyalty to our boss, who is also our friend. There is such adhesion to the project that leaving it hurts. “
Employee survey, culture of transparency, measurement of a fulfillment score at work, regular review of managers, safeguards in working hours… there are many levers to ensure the well-being of employees. Mehdi Tahri, co-founder of iziwork, highly criticized scale-up on BTSU, confesses: “We did not listen enough to the alerts. “ In 2018, iziwork was born from a project to revolutionize the temporary work market. The turnover multiplied by ten in two years. “Growth has imposed a very sustained pace of work and very frequent organizational changes, explains the entrepreneur. In a traditional business, you have time to adapt, these are cycles of one or two years. In a scale-up, you find yourself managing a much greater level of complexity in your tasks in an extremely short period of time: it creates tension. “
Why do employees turn to social networks? For the creator of the BTSU account, who wishes to remain anonymous, it was inevitable: “If I hadn't created this account, someone else would have. There is so much frustration. What is very vicious is the smallness of the ecosystem: we are afraid to speak, because everyone knows each other. “ The reactions of the companies concerned are eloquent: the majority of them accused the account of defamation. After having announced to “The World” in March 2021 that they were starting legal proceedings, iziwork changed its strategy. “It was a hot reaction, admits Mehdi Tahri. We decided to take all of this as an opportunity to improve our practices. We set up eighteen workshops to listen to our employees, reinforced by an anonymous survey and an in-depth diagnosis carried out by an independent firm. “ The founder of BTSU concludes: “I've had internal feedback telling me that things are really moving. “
(Re) alignment with values
Scale-ups undoubtedly enjoy an attractive reputation as symbols of success. But prestige is not always enough to hold together a family that is expanding at great speed. Virgil Raingeard is categorical: “A corporate culture is built and maintained. “ When this HR joined the start-up Comet in 2018 (25 employees at the time, 60 two years later), “There was no particular problem, but to be sure that things continue to go well on a human level, the founders recruited me as VP People. At the time, it was quite unique ”. This title of VP People has also become very popular. “It rehumanizes the traditional term of human resources”, comments the ex-employee.
But sometimes that's not enough. At iziwork, a VP People was also recruited, even before the “bad buzz” caused by BTSU, assures Mehdi Tahri. What could be more ironic for a project which aims to improve the conditions of access to work than to find itself under the blow of such accusations? “The DNA of our project is deeply human, defends the founder. So obviously, the well-being of employees is at the heart of our concerns. Today we want to reaffirm the values from the beginning. Because in the end, we employ 200 people who weren't there a year ago. “
For Mehdi Tahri, investors are also increasingly sensitive to human issues. “Our last boards have focused on this question. Our shareholders are aligned with our conviction that well-being at work is necessary for sustainable growth. “ Management as the main lever for resilience… easier said than done. Especially when we expect these scale-ups to show us the way, to be pioneers of the “next world”. Did you say pressure?
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