Maverick Scottish brewer BrewDog found itself under fire this month as more than 100 ex-employees sent a blistering open letter to its founders – condemning them for fostering a “toxic” culture and wrecking employees’ mental health. The signatories have since grown, now numbering more than 300.

The craft beer firm is no stranger to controversy: it has a habit of courting it for publicity purposes, as I wrote about here. It’s made beers packaged inside dead animals, developed a pink beer for girls, sent protest drinks to Vladimir Putin and gone out of its way to pick fights with its more established rivals and the Advertising Standards Authority. It used to describe itself on its website as:

A post-Punk apocalyptic motherfu*ker of a craft brewery

But this was one a controversy it clearly didn’t seek. And it likely poses its biggest reputational threat to-date, undermining its recent positive actions such as planting forests, repurposing its distilleries to make hand sanitiser and offering its pubs up as COVID vaccination centres.

There’s no doubt its recruitment efforts will be hit hard: who wants to work for an allegedly toxic employer? And demand for its beer amongst consumers who care about the companies behind the products they buy could plummet.

Now the dust has started to settle, it’s a good time to look at what happened, how the firm reacted and what it needs to do next.

What happened?

On 9 June, a group of BrewDog ex-employees calling themselves Punks With Purpose published an open letter online, seemingly out of the blue.

The letter is excoriating – accusing the firm of being “built on a cult of personality” and leaving its employees feeling “burnt out, afraid and miserable”.

It describes a culture of “growth at any cost”, “lies, hypocrisy and deceit” and an atmosphere of fear. It says “a significant number of people have admitted they have suffered mental illness” as a result of working there.

“By valuing growth, speed and action above all else, your company has achieved incredible things, but at the expense of those who delivered your dreams.”

It points the finger squarely at founder James Watt, and demands “a genuine apology from anyone and everyone who has worked for BrewDog and treated people like objects: harassing, assaulting, belittling, insulting or gaslighting them.”

Naturally, this was immediately leapt upon by the media, with stories run by every national paper and the BBC. And we’re now in the phase where publications are writing reflective features about what this tells us about internal culture, employee engagement and so on.

A positive initial response

BrewDog clearly had to react quickly. And, in the circumstances, I think it responded pretty well.

James Watt has a reputation for being blunt and outspoken, so I half expected him to come out fighting. That would have been disastrous for the company: people will inevitably think 100+ ex-staff can’t be wrong, and an attack on them would have simply proven the accusations of aggression and bullying.

Instead, Watt was either shrewd in his judgement or well advised by his PR agency – or both. He took it on the chin, took responsibility for the problem and showed his human side, acknowledging the letter as “so upsetting, but so important.”  And the most powerful thing he did was apologise:

“Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of that letter, but to listen, learn and act … We are committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always; and we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more. But most of all, right now, we are sorry.”

In a follow-up interview with the BBC, he said: “The buck stops with me. I will use [the criticism] to be a better chief executive and leader.” And he explained the company would embark on a series of anonymous surveys of current staff “and do some listening groups”.

… and the not so good

But it didn’t all go well. Straight after the open letter was published, BrewDog drafted a rebuttal letter and circulated it to all its staff, urging them to sign it “by 10.30am.” The letter was never finalised, but the draft was leaked to the media – presumably by disgruntled existing employees – widely published and cast the company in an even worse light.

In the context of the claims of a culture of fear and coercion, it came across as an attempt to pressurise staff to leap to the company’s defence, with depiction of the protest letter as a “threat to all our livelihoods” seen as a veiled intimidation tactic.

And while the 10.30am deadline to sign was probably an unavoidable practicality (given the intense media interest, any response had to be fast), this again came across putting a gun to employees’ heads.

James Watt was right swiftly to distance himself from the letter – saying it was a well-intentioned but misguided idea from his HR team rather than his doing.

What happens next?

So, despite the open letter putting BrewDog in an appalling light, the brewer largely responded, in my view, as well as it could have on the day.

But it’s what happens next that could make or break the company.

If the firm takes the criticisms to heart and implements its promised listening programme – genuinely reshaping its culture and practices where needed, being transparent about the process and communicating clearly about how it’s changed – this could, perversely, prove to be a positive chapter in the company’s history.

But if Watt’s comments turn out to be empty words to get through the heat of the crisis, it could well be its ruin. The world is now watching closely, and there’ll be little appetite for giving the firm a second chance.

Time will tell which way they go – and whether it’s possible after all to combine a maverick, rapid-growth, ‘punk’ culture with a grown-up, caring attitude to employees.


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Image by Bernt Rostad