- A former highly paid executive at WeWork talked to Business Insider about his year there, which resulted in him deciding to sue the company.
- Richard Markel landed at WeWork when it bought part of the construction company where he worked, owned by a WeWork executive’s brother.
- He was tasked with building a West Coast construction team – until one day, he says, he came to work and found that his calendar appointments had been cleared.
- He described a strange year and a “cultish” culture, filled with deep “spiritual” discussions and a mandatory all-employee boozy summer camp where employees slept in tents, and then being tossed to the curb right before his stock options matured.
- Read all of Business Insider’s WeWork coverage here.
In February, Richard Markel was a flourishing WeWork executive, making roughly $300,000 per year as the company’s vice president of West Coast construction, managing a team of 75.
But when he came into work one morning, he discovered something odd.
Another executive at the company named Lincoln Wood had apparently deleted all of Markel’s recurring calendar appointments, essentially booting him from his meetings.
WeWork had hired Wood, who was 20 years younger than Markel, a few months before. Wood had been given Markel’s same job title. His role was vague, Markel said, and the two men didn’t interact much. No one explained to Markel who had hired this would-be doppelganger or why, nor did they alter Markel’s job duties, Markel told Business Insider.
In January, one month before the calendar-deletion incident, Markel’s boss stopped showing up for work. When Markel logged into Workday, WeWork’s HR system, he discovered that he now reported to Wood.
“I can honestly say, in all of my years of experience, this is the weirdest, most unprofessional treatment I’ve ever seen happen to anybody, literally anybody I’ve ever worked with,” Markel said.
Markel, an architect and licensed contractor in multiple states, spent a decade at the renowned architecture firm Gensler, then worked for years at various other industry heavyweights.
Markel’s request to be reinvited to meetings was ignored, he said. By mid-February, he’d lodged a complaint with an HR representative, Katie Dufford. In March, he was still in limbo, unable to do his job but still employed.
On April 10, just 20 days before his first stock options would vest, he was called into a meeting with Wood and Dufford where Markel says they fired him and blamed it on role elimination.
- Richard Markel
Markel, who was 62 when he was terminated, became one of a handful of former WeWork executives who sued the company claiming discrimination.
WeWork has categorically denied his claims, and Markel has withdrawn the lawsuit as he battles WeWork over jurisdiction. WeWork has also tried to push the suit – one of several discrimination lawsuits it’s facing – into private arbitration.
The lawsuits come as WeWork stumbles toward an initial public offering that’s been roiled by investor doubts about its business model, valuation, and prospects for profitability.
But the allegations in Markel’s complaint also provide a remarkable peek into a bizarre company culture, seemingly driven by the whims and quirks of its founders, that’s only likely to heighten concerns about the fast-growing office-sharing company.
Markel says he loved WeWork until he was unceremoniously pushed aside. But it was also one of the oddest years of his life, marked by incidents that ranged from attending a mandatory weekend camp for employees where he and thousands of others were forced to sleep in tents, to deep “spiritual” discussions led by cofounder Miguel McKelvey, to an all-hands meeting where CEO Adam Neumann held his children on his lap.
The culture, he says, often created problems.
A mandatory days-long party known as ‘camp’
By far the strangest part of the WeWork culture was the mandatory week at “camp.”
All WeWork employees were required to attend the multiday party and allowed to bring their partners. WeWork functions with a skeleton crew in its buildings during this time, Markel said.
The events were ostensibly for team building, but in reality it was a bacchanal that Markel said would give any “corporate lawyer” hives.
“When you mix a bunch of 27-year-olds with raging hormones and unlimited amounts of alcohol that you could literally have 24/7, provided free by the company, you’re just going to have problems,” he said.
Markel attended the 2018 camp, held near London, with his wife. The 2017 camp was in Eridge Park, England, and in prior years it took place on an upstate New York property known as Raquette Lake Camps, owned by the family of one of WeWork’s top executives, Mark Lapidus, a cousin of Rebekah Neumann’s. (Lapidus left the company in 2018, The Real Deal reported.)
By the end of 2018, WeWork had about 9,500 employees, Markel said, so a mandatory all-hands in the UK was an expensive shindig.
“There was no business aspect, no training, for example,” he said. While camp did include some presentations from executives, including Adam Neumann, where attendance was voluntary, the daily roster was filled with activities like meditation sessions, rock-wall climbing, pottery, archery, trapeze, roller disco, canoeing, cocktail making, whiskey tasting, crafts, yoga, and more.
Employees, including Markel and his wife, slept in tents. They froze at night, Markel said.
The days consisted of various fun activities and talks on topics like the earth and the environment. The evenings brought concerts from big-name performers.
For instance, in 2017, WeWork employees were treated to a weekend of private concerts from the Crystal Fighters, Florence and the Machine, and Two Door Cinema Club, according to employees’ social-media posts from the event. In 2018, Lorde played.
WeWork said it canceled the camp program and that 2018, the year Markel attended, was the last year.
WeWork offices have long been known for having free beer and wine – in 2018, the company ended the “unlimited” aspect – and Markel said he didn’t see people at work abusing the perk. But at camp, it was a different story. The booze flowed freely, and the 20-somethings indulged with predictable results that ranged from obnoxious behavior to hookups.
WeWork hired licensed bartenders, and starting in 2016, as employee numbers began to skyrocket, it issued RFID wristbands to “track alcohol consumption,” according to a source familiar with camp operations.
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@wework’s #weworksummercamp isn’t a festival, it is indeed a summer camp of activities, workshops and networking for the ever growing WeWork community. But music is an essential key bonding experience for all, so it makes sense WeWork invite some great artists to perform at Summer Camp!
The backdrop for the festivities was WeWork’s rapid growth: During Markel’s time at WeWork, the company’s headcount swelled from 5,500 to 9,500 people.
WeWork created an exciting atmosphere full of feel-good talk, alcohol, and camp.
A long, strange year
Markel enjoyed the work for most of his year at WeWork, describing it as fast-paced and exciting. But he found the WeWork culture to be “cultish” to “a pretty extreme degree.”
WeWork advocated “being kind to the earth” and says it is, for example, eliminating the use of all plastics in its facilities – a policy that many employees, including Markel, applaud.
Markel described McKelvey’s role as the “cultural/spiritual leader” of the company.
- Miguel McKelvey
McKelvey hosts a bimonthly fireside chat where he meets with 30 or so senior executives. The hourlong chats typically involved McKelvey sharing his views on topics like how to “build resilience” or “creating space to ask for and receive,” as well as describing his vision for the company.
The fireside chats would often become deep discussions on morality and personal views. Many executives, including Markel, enjoyed the chats.
Rebekah Neumann, the wife of CEO Adam Neumann and a WeWork cofounder, was also thought of as a “spiritual” leader and talked to the whole company from time to time, particularly about social projects, Markel said. She was known inside the companies for projects such as her school, WeGrow.
Markel described her as a very visible, clearly important person, even though few people seemed to understand what her actual responsibilities were.
Adam Neumann also hosts mandatory all-hands company meetings to discuss the company’s business strategy. One time, he did the broadcast with his kids on his lap. As homey as that sounds, some employees found it weird, especially given that WeWork’s fast growth meant that a lot of employees worked long hours – the feeling was that the CEO was hanging with his family while everyone else was still at the office.
Then there were other policies, like WeWork’s famous ban on expensing meat meals, that Markel said were problematic given the real-estate industry WeWork operates in. Hosting no-meat-allowed business dinners in the construction world was difficult at best, he said.
Neumann was not very hands-on regarding the construction work; he met with Markel, the person building and running his 75-person West Coast construction team, only twice in the year Markel worked there, Markel told us.
“I did meet Adam Neumann personally twice while in San Francisco, but we never interacted on business projects,” Markel said.
3 brothers and an acquisition
Proximity to Neumann, who controls all the voting power, can open all sorts of doors at the company.
In fact, it was Neumann’s connection to a New York construction firm owned by three brothers that brought Markel to WeWork in the first place.
Granit Gjonbalaj, who was hired in 2015 as WeWork’s head of global construction, was known as a close member of Neumann’s inner circle. His family’s construction firm, UA Builders, owned by Granit and his brothers, Albert and Jimmy, was hired to handle significant amounts of WeWork’s building renovations – at one point, as much as 90% of all WeWork projects in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC.
In March 2018, WeWork bought the part of the Gjonbalaj family company handling WeWork’s projects. A source familiar with the deal described it as an “acqui-hire.” About 150 people, including Markel, went to work for WeWork directly.
After the deal, Granit’s brothers took senior management jobs at WeWork’s in-house construction unit. But they also continued to work at the part of UA Builders that hadn’t been acquired by WeWork, sources told Business Insider. And then, less than a year after they joined, Albert and Jimmy Gjonbalaj quietly left WeWork.
Sources tell us that Albert and Jimmy have spun up a new construction company, with plans to once again sell construction services to WeWork through it. Neither Albert nor Jimmy responded to Business Insider’s requests for comment, and Granit forwarded our request to the PR team of The We Company, WeWork’s parent.
The Gjonbalaj brothers’ business relationship with We is one of many family-member business entanglements among We executives.
A credibility gap
WeWork’s dealings with the construction firm are also among many unorthodox business practices that have surprised investors. WeWork’s IPO prospectus details how Neumann sold the trademark for the word “We” to his own company for nearly $6 million. (After reports of the arrangement caused an outcry, Neumann promised to return the money.)
WeWork is also facing other lawsuits from former executives. Lisa Bridges, the former senior vice president and head of compensation, filed a complaint in June alleging gender discrimination. And Ruby Anaya, the former director of culture, sued last October, alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Markel’s surreal experience with a disappearing calendar, an unannounced colleague bearing his own job title, and his eventual dismissal underscores what he says is a fundamental disconnect between the company’s words and its actions.
“The problem that I had is: If you talk the talk and don’t walk the walk, then there’s a serious credibility gap there,” Markel said.
“For example, I was totally on board with some of the social aspects. I’m personally a meat eater, but I’m married to a vegetarian. It’s all very reasonable, and their heart’s in the right place. But the way I was treated was so professionally repugnant, so unprofessional, so that it was almost like, ‘Hey, WeWork, is everything you say bulls—?'”