Netflix Is Winning the Culture War: 5 Things Companies Should Know

HR, Industry News, Op-Ed

netflix los gatos

Mural at Netflix – Los Gatos

In 2009, the Netflix Culture Deck went viral and set a daring new tone for employer brands everywhere. After nearly a decade, the company recently made key revisions to its manifesto, and both the timing and the content could not be more relevant.

While recent scandals have kept some of the biggest brands battling PR fires, Netflix is coming out on top, again. It earned headlines last week for refreshing its famed Culture Deck with some notable changes.

It’s time we all take a closer look at the strategy and substance behind one of the most infamous pieces of employer branding content from one of the most influential corporate cultures of our time.

netflix culture deck brilliant jerks

Message & Medium Continue to Hit the Mark

Both message and medium outlined the Netflix corporate values with a candidness and piercing clarity that was unseen in the many carefully manicured corporate-speak of Employee Value Propositions (EVPs) then, and today.

In 2009, it was the no-frills slide deck that became the most shared culture deck, and quite possibly most viral HR document ever. This year, the revised version is even simpler, laid out on one web page in the same black, white, and red font palette. The first version displayed minimal graphics, and the updated document has none at all.

Netflix’s substance-over-style delivery endures, but it is the lack of shareable visual media in the newest version that is notable because it communicates the intended audienceless designed as a memo for HR professionals, and crafted more for the prospective candidate.

Regardless of intent, however, today’s HR and employer branding leaders have just as much to learn from the updated Netflix doc as they did from the last. Let’s take a look at the messages they have added or further emphasized since 2009. 

Still No Room for “Brilliant Jerks”

Probably one of the most memorable phrases to come out of the Netflix Culture Deck, “brilliant jerks” is a policy we see again in the latest manifesto. Character and human decency are still too valuable to sacrifice, even for brilliance.

On a dream team, there are no ‘brilliant jerks.’ The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that.”

This is a clear break away from the egocentric founder and “brogrammer” tech culture now widely dramatized and satirized in the mainstream. But that isn’t the only tech industry archetype they distance their culture from.

Debunking the Myth of the Eccentric, Obsessed Tech CEO

Netflix also breaks down perhaps the idol of the Silicon Valley comic universethe tech CEO. The revised Netflix culture doc even mentions Steve Jobs to emphasize this point:

“We don’t buy into the lore of CEOs, or other senior leaders, who are so involved in the details that their product or service becomes amazing. The legend of Steve Jobs was that his micromanagement made the iPhone a great product...We do not emulate these top-down models because we believe we are most effective and innovative when employees own decisions.”

Instead of worshiping the larger-than-life hero who saves tech brands from oblivion, Netflix employees are encouraged to aspire to be better leaders themselves.

Leaders do exist, however, but they are more so the “informed captain” who often make decisions of calculated risk but which do not require full consensus:

“We avoid committees making decisions because we consider that slows us down, and diffuses responsibility and accountability. We ‘farm for dissent.’ …We are clear, however, that decisions are not made by a majority or committee vote. We don’t wait for consensus, nor do we drive to rapid, uninformed decision making. When the captain of any particular decision is reasonably confident of the right bet for us to take, they decide and we take that bet.”

netflix culture deck adequate performance severance

Afraid of Feedback? Need Not Apply

The updated document had more information and direction on why, how, and when to give and receive feedback to and from fellow colleagues.

“In describing integrity we say, ‘You only say things about fellow employees you say to their face.’ This attribute is one of the hardest for new people to believe — and to learn to practice…We build trust by being selfless in giving feedback to our colleagues even if it is uncomfortable to do so. Feedback helps us to avoid sustained misunderstandings and the need for rules.”

This emphasis on open feedback is perhaps one of the most radical aspects of the Netflix culture, and an integral part of the company’s leadership structure and talent development philosophy. While most companies formally frame critical feedback within the confines of the yearly performance review, at Netflix, feedback should occur freely, constantly, and without solicitation.

With that said, this open feedback culture is also an area where Netflix will lose some of its best and brightest candidates and employees, and the company seems perfectly ok with that.

netflix culture deck vacation policy

Looks Good on Paper, But in Practice?..

Both the 2009 and 2017 versions of the culture manifesto are many thingscandid, opinionated, and a little controversial. One thing it is not: confusing.

With the refreshing lack of corporate-speak, you may find that you have a clearer sense of Netflix’s culture than that of your own company’s. The manifesto entertains and challenges readers (likely potential applicants) who are the first to decide if they are a fit for the company, or not.

But while the Netflix philosophy is clear, what remains a mystery for anyone who is not a Netflix employee is how all of these values in practice really play out.

Does the open feedback culture coupled with the “generous severance for adequate performance” policy really promote high levels of trust, support, and collaboration? The ills of group dynamics become harder to stabilize in highly competitive environments. Internal politics, abuses of power, and bad ethics calls are common byproducts of competitive systems reaching a fever pitch. Has Netflix somehow found a way to curtail these instances and prevent yet another cautionary tale for the tech industry?

Only time will tell. But so far, the narrative is this:

Netflix is winning the culture war by actually living the buzzword and battle cry of the digital agebeing authentic.  

Ironically, the meaning of “authenticity” has emptied from overuse, misuse, and over prescription since the dawn of social media. But somehow, Netflix still manages to embody that spirit and attract like minds to join its cause.

This point is best summarized by the lines that Netflix chose to close the manifesto:

If you want to build a ship,
don’t drum up the people
to gather wood, divide the
work, and give orders.

Instead, teach them to yearn
for the vast and endless sea.

-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Netflix is Winning the Culture War: 5 Things Companies Should Know
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The Netflix Culture Deck that went viral in 2009 was recently revised, and the updates could not be more relevant. Read the top 5 insights HR should know.
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