Former BrewDog Employees Call Out Scottish Craft Brewery’s ‘Culture of Fear’

After a group of former BrewDog employees called out the Scottish craft brewery for espousing a “culture of fear” and “toxic attitudes towards junior staff” in an open letter, co-founder and CEO James Watt admitted BrewDog has not always “got it right.”

“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,” the former employees, under the name “Punks with Purpose,” wrote. “Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog.”

More than 75 former employees signed the letter, with an additional 45 employees saying they “did not feel safe to include either their names or initials.”

Punks With Purpose shared their experiences at BrewDog during a time when current and former beer industry workers in the U.S. and U.K. — mostly women — are using social media to tell stories of the sexual harassment and assault, and discrimination they have faced at work.

In the U.S., these accounts first came to light on the Instagram account of Notch Brewing production manager Brienne Allan (@ratmagnet) and now on @EmboldenActAdvance, an account run by a group of anonymous industry women.

Watt, in a statement posted to social media, called the letter “upsetting, but so important.”

“Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of the letter, but to listen, learn and act,” he wrote.

Watt added that BrewDog employs thousands of workers “with positive stories to tell,” but said the company is “committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always” and promised to “reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more” and apologized.

However, the Punks With Purpose account also shared an internal BrewDog staff memo in which current staff members were asked to sign onto the company’s own open letter.

“We aren’t looking to dismiss the concerns raised in this open letter,” the memo read. “They are lived experiences and we know everyone has their own unique perspective, which is valid. But by publicly portraying their own experiences as that of our current crew isn’t just demanding to all of us who work incredibly hard to make BrewDog an incredible business; it’s also a threat to all of our livelihoods. We cannot remain quiet when we know that creating a public perception of BrewDog as a bad place to work could potentially jeopardise job security.”

The memo was sent by the company’s “people team,” Watt said on Twitter.

Watt also took to the Equity for Punks forum Wednesday night to defend BrewDog’s “high performance culture.”

“[W]e have always moved at speed and we have always focussed on growth,” he wrote. “It is fair to say that this type of fast paced and intense environment is definitely not for everyone, but many of our fantastic long-term team members have thrived in our culture. Our culture is built on rewarding and developing great people and focussing on growing our business.”

The former workers’ letter focused on the “cult of personality” the company “was, and is, built on,” and pointed to BrewDog’s reliance on notoriety to further its goals.

“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,” the workers wrote.

The employees noted the incongruity between BrewDog’s stated goal “to save the planet” — the company achieved carbon negative status last year — and its use of private, chartered flights and saison brewed with glacier water, “half of which was dumped down the drain.”

“Forgive us if we feel any of the claims made recently about changing the business seem insincere,” the former employees wrote. “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.”

The authors of the Punks With Purpose letter laid the blame for the company’s toxicity squarely on Watt’s shoulders, and said they shared the letter despite “the power [his] voice carries, and the depth of [his] pockets when it comes to legal action.”

“It is with you that the responsibility for this rotten culture lies,” they wrote. “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 U.S., BrewDog was among the fastest growing craft breweries of 2020. The company increased production 44%, to 62,542 barrels of beer, and ranked as the 41st largest craft brewery by volume, according to the Brewers Association.

Last week, Watt shared highlights from BrewDog’s 2020 annual report, which included several achievements from 2020. Among them:

  • Increasing overall revenue by 10%, despite the closure of the majority of its 100 bars for most of 2020 due to the pandemic;
  • Increasing e-commerce revenue by 900%;
  • Growing its gross margin to 48%, up from 43% in 2019;
  • Ranking as the 19th most valuable beer brand;
  • Shipping the equivalent of 250 million cans of beer;
  • Growing its Equity for Punks investor community by more than 200,000.

“2020 was just like being a start-up again,” Watt wrote on LinkedIn. “High highs, low lows and incredibly high stakes. In a start-up you also make big bets, you put everything on the line for what you believe in and then you do it over and over again. We had to do that throughout 2020.”

In the company’s annual report, Watt cited the strength of the BrewDog brand as one of the reasons to be “excited about 2021.”

“Our reputation and brand awareness has never been higher,” he added.

A section of the annual report was dedicated to BrewDog’s workforce, which the company referred to as “the beating heart of our business,” “the reason we exist” and “the thing we must work hardest to protect and develop.” As proof, the company cited several initiatives: “real living wave, private medical, pawternity leave, enhanced parental leave, Cicerone training and bonuses” for all of its team members, as well as profit sharing and share option programs.

In their letter, the Punks With Purpose former employees noted that “many staff are simply never permitted to take” pawternity leave, paid time off when an employee adopts a dog.

BrewDog’s “Unicorn Fund” profit sharing program distributes 10% of the company’s profits “equally among our teams regardless of their level of seniority.” In 2020, BrewDog “wiped the slate clean” for the first six months of the year when the pandemic suppressed revenue “so our teams were not affected by the pandemic’s impact.”

The company also touted its salary cap, which restricts new hires’ pay to no more than seven times that of entry-level employees, as something to help BrewDog “promote internally.”

BrewDog called gender diversity among its staff “a key priority” but admitted that its “balance is currently not where we would like.” Men account for 73% of BrewDog’s director-level workforce, 76% of its senior team, and 64% of its overall workforce, the company reported. Women make up just 27% of its director-level workforce, 24% of its senior team and 36% of its overall employees.

“[W]e are committed to inspiring and supporting the next generation of women leaders,” the company wrote.

This isn’t the first time former employees have criticized BrewDog’s treatment of employees.

In March, BrewDog terminated four workers from its Indianapolis taproom. All four belonged to the LGBTQ community and said they were told they were being dismissed because the company wanted a change in culture.

BrewDog apologized for the firings, which it said contained “inconsistencies” with its formal protocol, and insisted that there was “no evidence of discrmination.”