"Steady this ship"

BrewDog’s eight-year refusal to remove sexist comment from its Facebook page shows how far the brewery has drifted from its ideals, writes Charlotte Cook


Editor’s note: BrewDog was invited to comment on the points raised in this piece, but had not responded by the publication deadline.

In the age of sail, those engaging in battles at sea would nail their colours to the mast in order to demonstrate their willingness to fight for what they believed in. Today we use the same expression to indicate a willingness to declare your values and principles in public, and we are expected to live by these edicts, conducting ourselves according to our own standards. If anyone in craft beer can be considered to proclaim their beliefs on the industry and business in a very brash and self-assured way, it is BrewDog. 

“Captain” James Watt has made great show of his willingness to admit to making mistakes and share the lessons he’s learned from making them. Indeed, he even goes so far as to give guides on how to own up to mistakes and grow from them. This is commendable, but as I recently experienced, what he professes to hold fast to as his personal compass and how he actually behaves are poles apart.

I worked for BrewDog between January 2012- December 2014. I have a good handle on the culture of the business and how things work. While it is years since I was there, some things get embedded very quickly, and once a platform is established upon these foundations, dismantling it is difficult, as we’ve seen confirmed by numerous stories from staff past and present.

During Spring 2013, it was very common for photographs of the staff to be used to promote the brand on social media, and it was generally a pleasant way of engaging the public. On 26 April 2013, a photo of me holding a beer was posted on the official BrewDog FaceBook page, asking fans for suggestions on how to launch the new beer. One comment stated, “Have her drink it naked”. I took umbrage at this and took it to both HR and social media to have the comment removed. I was told that they would not remove it, but I should stand up for myself against misogyny. 

I was astonished. This is an absolutely preposterous proposition; not only are workers entitled to be protected from this sort of harassment, but it is also morally incomprehensible. Being told that the people who should be able to stand up for you will not do so is extremely demoralising, extremely demotivating and reduces the chances of reporting future incidents. It would have been easy to delete the comment, and in the employee handbook I was given it states that BrewDog “seek to ensure that the working environment is sympathetic to all our employees”. That this was not followed shows the response was a learned one, stemming from the culture of the company, rather than written policy. In the same employee handbook it also said “work-related matters must not be placed on any such site [social media] at any time”, leaving me without recourse. 

The comment stayed online for eight years, and I never forgot about that incident. As has been reported, there have been a great many accusations of sexism and generally poor working conditions in craft brewing coming to light in recent weeks. As a result of this, I was asked to appear on BBC Woman’s Hour, where I recounted the incident without naming BrewDog. A member of the Equity For Punks shareholder forum found the photo, and on 26 May posted the offending comment, highlighting it was still available online. The next day several other members of the forum asked when it would be deleted and expressed their disgust. The comment was deleted on the 28th, and James apologised to the shareholders, but not me, for the delay. 

Going back to James’ Linkedin post, in which he claims that, to be a successful business leader, when confronted with a mistake one must “Recognise it. Very fast”, I’d argue he did not do so in this case. The comment should have been removed eight years ago; it should also have been removed on 26 May this year, when it was brought to his attention. It took several requests from shareholders for this to happen. This is not fast, this is not acting with speed to rectify a problem, it’s begrudgingly removing something because enough people on the internet are telling you to. James also claims that the longer you leave a mistake “the more embedded in your culture it becomes”. The comment would not have been left online in the first place, were it not for a culture that tolerated it. The culture was already there, and this simply proves to me that it is still embedded in BrewDog. 

James was asked on 26 May if I had been apologised to, no response. Eight days later another shareholder asked the same thing, which triggered a debate about the absent apology. This in turn prompted an emailed apology from a female member of the personnel department, who was not an employee at the time of the incident. James claims that when you make a mistake you should “completely own it”. In this instance, James did not; he ignored it and only acted when the mass of people demanding it could no longer be ignored.

“Everything that happens, anywhere in this organisation is completely, categorically and undeniably my fault and I accept full responsibility for it.”

In this instance, responsibility for the photo remaining online, and for shareholders having to demand its removal and an apology was not taken on by James. The task was instead performed by a female member of the HR team, of her own volition. A woman apologised to another woman for actions allowed to flourish in the toxic culture of a company created by men. This shows zero remorse, zero accountability from James, and the continuation of the same culture that allowed misogyny to go unchallenged.

The inability to read the room also astounded me, women are finally speaking up for the horrible treatment they have endured in the craft beer industry. The lack of an apology from James, or any assurance of the steps being taken to improve things, suggests to me that BrewDog has not yet understood the moment of change we are going through. 

 “Any mistake has to be your mistake. You have set the culture, you have set the direction, you have hired the key people and you have given them direction on how to act. So, as a leader, any mistake, anywhere in the organisation is always as a direct consequence of something you have done,” says James. As we can see though, he does not practice what he preaches. If the buck indeed stopped with him, he would have apologised to me himself as soon as they realised the comment was still up, and I would have happily worked with him to improve. He did not. He failed to live up to the standards he set himself. 

I myself realise the photo is a relatively trivial matter, compared to some of the stories we’ve heard, but it demonstrates that BrewDog’s public proclamations are not borne out in reality. If the company does not live its values in a relatively small matter, I do not see how it can be trusted to do so in much more important situations. There are grave allegations against BrewDog in the current maelstrom of issues in craft beer, presently unaddressed. As consumers, consider what you buy, but I also sincerely call upon all shareholders, senior management and TSG investment partners to steady this ship that is veering dangerously off course.

This story was updated 12/6/2021, at BrewDog’s request, to reflect the fact that the apology to Charlotte was issued by a female Crew Member acting on her own volition, rather than under instructions from James Watt.

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