BrewDog apologises after ‘culture of fear’ allegations

BrewDog co-founders Martin Dickie (left) and James Watt

Aberdeenshire-based craft brewing giant BrewDog has apologised after allegations were made in an open letter by a group of former employees called “Punks With Purpose” that the company operates in a “culture of fear.”

BrewDog co-founder James Watt said the letter is “upsetting” but that he will not “contradict or contest” its contents — and instead will “listen, learn and act.”

Watt said: “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.”

Watt added: “On our growth journey we have not always got things right and we are happy to admit when that is the case.

“However, we have always had a high performance culture, we have always moved with speed and we have always focused on growth.

“It’s fair to say this type of fast paced an intense environment is definitely not for everyone, but many of our fantastic long-term team members have thrived in our culture.”

The allegations are made in an open letter that reads, in full:

9th June 2021

Dear BrewDog,

In the last few weeks, we have witnessed what will hopefully be the start of major change in the beer industry. This has been largely down to the brave acts of many people coming forward to tell their stories, as well as others who have not only shouldered the responsibility for amplifying these stories, but also the enormous burden of the inevitable backlash unleashed upon them for daring to raise their heads above the parapet.

BrewDog have been flagged in a significant number of these allegations. We are not writing this to level further accusations, nor to dispel existing ones; it is down to each and every one of us to decide whether we believe women, or not. Rather, the purpose of this letter is to make known the feelings of former staff regarding the atmosphere fostered at BrewDog, since its inception, in the hope that it might explain why so many allegations have come to light.

BrewDog was, and is, built on a cult of personality. Since day one, you have sought to exploit publicity, both good and bad (and usually with the faces of James and Martin front and centre) to further your own business goals. Your mission might genuinely be to make other people as passionate about craft beer as you are (and in a sense you have succeeded – your fanbase certainly has some true zealots in its ranks), but the ambitions you impressed on your team have always seemed business-led. Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy.

In a post-truth world, you have allowed the ends to justify the means, time and time again. Lies, hypocrisy and deceit can be useful tools; PR campaigns repeated over and over on LinkedIn – until you actually believe them yourselves – is good for driving awareness, and if anyone questions the validity of your claims, you can simply move on to the next campaign. How many more times will we see the stories about sending protest beer to Russia (you didn’t), James and Martin changing their names to Elvis (they didn’t), awarding an Employee of the Month over a sweary can (which was not an accident and was actually approved for print by James), or offering Pawternity leave (which many staff are simply never permitted to take)? Worse, by placing personalities at the centre of your messaging, you have inflated egos and fostered a culture within craft beer that deifies founders, and gives weight to sexist and misogynistic brewers who claim to be standing up for free speech. You have become a lightning rod for some of the worst attitudes present on both the internet, and in real life.

You spent years claiming you wanted to be the best employer in the world, presumably to help you to recruit top talent, but ask former staff what they think of those claims, and you’ll most likely be laughed at. Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog.

These days, you claim you want to save the planet – an admirable mission, but slightly undermined when you look back over years of vanity projects. Chartering flights across the Atlantic that had to be filled with staff to justify them even going ahead? Brewing an “eco-friendly” saison with glacier water (half of which was dumped down the drain) so the proceeds could go to charity (but only after the donation was slashed because it was too much)? We hope the use of a private jet has come to an end, but it wouldn’t surprise us if it hasn’t.

Forgive us if we feel any of the claims made recently about changing the business seem insincere; for as long as any one of us can remember, we have never seen anything that has made us feel like BrewDog has lived the values it purports to uphold.

It doesn’t matter which part of the business we worked in; production, bartending, sales, operations, packaging, quality, marketing or HR, we all felt that in our day to day working lives, there were at best hurdles, and at worst genuine safety concerns. We felt that no matter how these were raised, the likelihood was we would be met with some variation on “that’s just the way things are”. Sometimes it was linked to James directly, sometimes it was because someone in a position of power felt enabled to act in such a manner. We believe these toxic attitudes towards junior staff trickled down throughout the business from day one, until they were simply an intrinsic part of the company. So many of us started our jobs there eagerly, already bought into the BrewDog ethos, only to very quickly discover that “fast-paced” meant “unmanageable”, and “challenging” meant “damaging”. Some people (no names, but as a group we know who they are) quickly discovered that this could be exploited, and allow them to treat other staff however they liked without repercussions – making them feel belittled and/or pressured into working beyond their capacity, and often eventually feeling forced out of the business – because that was perceived as the way the company operated, and if we didn’t like it, we should leave. Every single one of us worked with at least one of these people, who often quickly rose through the ranks as someone loyal to James and his preferred ways of working.

Put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left. Hell, the company once set up a staff committee, under the guise of assembling a team of well-respected individuals to tackle cross-departmental projects, who at their first meeting discovered the actual main task of the group was to address the culture of fear in the business. Well, we can tell you now, you could have asked any single person in the company how to address it, and every one of them could have told you the answer – but you wouldn’t have liked it.

Some of us remain in the industry, some have moved on to pastures new. Some of us were made redundant, some left voluntarily because we felt it was time to get out before we could be pushed out. Regardless of where we are now, or what we are doing, there is not one amongst us who feels entirely safe signing this letter. Yet despite the power your voice carries, and the depth of your pockets when it comes to legal action, we believe it is time for us to share our experience with the world.

Many staff felt unable to sign this, despite moving into new roles in other business sectors. We do not judge them, and we ask that you – and anyone reading this – believe us when we say that the feeling of disappointment, resentment and sadness is shared by hundreds of people. As we have said, we will not make specific accusations here, because quite frankly we cannot risk the wrath of BrewDog’s notoriously trigger-happy legal team; but suffice to say that a significant number of people have admitted they have suffered mental illness as a result of working at BrewDog, and that signing this would leave them feeling extremely vulnerable.

James, this next passage is for you.

It is with you that the responsibility for this rotten culture lies. Your attitude and actions are at the heart of the way BrewDog is perceived, from both inside and out. 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.

In the wake of your success are people left burnt out, afraid and miserable. The true culture of BrewDog is, and seemingly always has been, fear. You go on LinkedIn and claim the buck stops with you, but do you have the guts to look at the team you have built around you and admit that the overwhelming majority of them are quietly afraid that their next mistake could be their last at BrewDog? In the last few weeks, the silence has been deafening – this is not the time to try and quietly wait things out.

Now, for those of you still working at BrewDog.

You have a choice. The next time you are pressured into doing something against your will, or working in such a way that it will affect your mental health, push back. It is absolutely not worth it. The only reason BrewDog has become what it is, is that under immense pressure, good people have done bad things to achieve the job set before them, in such a way that benefits only the company. Being told to ignore health and safety guidelines? Don’t. Someone’s demanding you send beer to an event in the USA by bypassing customs? Nope. We know sometimes it feels as though you are part of something bigger, something special and unique – but ask yourself, is that worth the shit you have to deal with?

BrewDog – we’re sorry, but you don’t get to spend fourteen years exploiting social media’s lack of interest in nuance or truth, and then shit the bed when it comes back around on you. Now is the time for genuine, meaningful change at BrewDog – and we mean more than starting the search for a Mental Health ambassador (who’ll likely last less than a year after none of their plans are taken seriously) or pointing staff to an HR team who are often perceived to be there solely to protect the company. We mean starting with a genuine apology from anyone and everyone who has worked for BrewDog and treated people like objects; harassing, assaulting, belittling, insulting or gaslighting them. It’s the absolute minimum we should expect from you, and yet we still don’t actually expect to see one. We hope we’re wrong.

About the Author

Mark McSherry
Dalriada Media LLC sites are edited by veteran news journalist Mark McSherry, a former staff editor and reporter with Reuters, Bloomberg and major newspapers including the South China Morning Post, London's Sunday Times and The Scotsman. McSherry's journalism has also appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, London's Evening Standard and Forbes. McSherry is also a professor of journalism and communication arts in universities and colleges in New York City. Scottish-born McSherry has an MBA from the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Global Affairs from New York University.