Training & Development

Is Silicon Valley Losing Its Soul?

by Clifford Stephan |

July 16, 2017

An abundance of young money. A hypercompetitive environment. Poor work-life balance. Insular, bubble-like culture. Sky-high cost of living. Atrocious commute times.

That’s Silicon Valley, according to a recent article in Quartz (, and the assessment is spot-on. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve seen the changes, especially in the last few years. 

It’s a tough place to live and work. Employees are stressed out—unsettled, uncommitted, always searching for the next big thing. Employers are stressed out, too, as they try to recruit and retain top talent while staying on top of day-to-day business demands.

Is it possible to bring more peace and stability to Silicon Valley? And where do we start?

The Quartz article urges leaders to tackle big problems like California’s water crisis, traffic gridlock, and diversity issues.

That all sounds great, but I’m not sure it would do much to address the everyday toll on employees.

Here’s a more modest proposal: Put more heart, soul, and energy into strong people programs. Without that piece, stress, instability, and dissatisfaction are inevitable.

In my consulting work, I hear stories all the time about employee dissatisfaction. Just last month I wrote an article about Jennifer Lawrence and the Fair Pay Act I thought I was just doing a tongue-in-cheek take on a new HR law in California, but I really hit a nerve with some readers.

One shared, “I found out that I’m getting paid $10,000 less than a male counterpart for doing the same job…I don’t know if I should bring it up. Will I be perceived as ‘bitchy’ and just complaining?” Several others shared similar stories with me.

For these people—and many others—their jobs make them question their worth, every day. When employees perceive that they aren’t being treated equitably, they feel devalued and disaffected. These employees may not stick around long, and if they do, their unhappiness may rub off on others, negatively impacting the company’s culture, morale, and brand.

This is about more than just fair pay. It’s about employee satisfaction and well-being, which are directly related to engagement, long-term retention, and the company’s bottom line.

What’s going on here? In my experience, employers don’t intend to discriminate or treat their employees inequitably, but it still happens. Companies in Silicon Valley operate in a very expensive, competitive, rapidly changing environment, where the focus is on core business objectives of developing and delivering products and services. There are lots of plates spinning, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to develop proactive, strategic approaches to human capital. The result? Companies often proceed in reactive, fire drill mode and end up making a lot of subjective, uninformed decisions about employees.

And those decisions can hurt.

The reactive, business-as-usual approach—“the norm” in many startups and private companies with 500 or fewer employees—creates huge problems. It’s not uncommon to find companies where the most senior employees have only been there for 2 years. Or for an entire team to be made up of employees hired within the last 3 months. Or to hear about employees always ready to jump ship for a better opportunity. If employees’ needs aren’t being met, they’re less likely to feel adequate and committed. Life in Silicon Valley is stressful enough. If work is one of the problems, it’s a recipe for general unhappiness.

So, we have employees and employers who are always looking for something better. Is possible to do things differently, to create more happiness, satisfaction, camaraderie, and stability?

I think we can. And here’s how.  Let’s start with some honest advice: If you run a company or an HR operation and you truly want things to be different, then change starts with you. It’s time to cut the excuses—“We don’t have time. We’re getting by. It’s too much work. We’ll figure it out later.” It’s time to stop accepting that reactive, subjective pay decisions are just part of the game. It may be the norm, but it doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be). And it’s costing you more than you know.

Let’s take a stand and change the game.  

Revamping your people programs is key. It will take some work, but it’s no more challenging than the work you do every day. You want employees who stick around for more than a year? You want to attract the best talent, and to avoid creating or exacerbating discontent? Great—now is the time to take action), to get beyond the short-term plan and create a foundation where pay, benefits, and opportunities empower your employees. Now is the time to stop treating the “nice-to-haves” as the necessities that they are. Figure out your mission. Figure out how to create an ecosystem that builds up employees and fosters deeper human connections across teams.

This might sound daunting, but you don’t have to go it alone. We manage many of these projects to completion in just two to three months; the process is pretty straightforward and systematic. Your biggest challenge will likely be giving the project the green light.

When you consider the number of potential benefits, that decision should be easy.

Employers who can make informed, consistent decisions about employees are well-positioned to operate in a transparent, equitable manner. The downstream effects include a more stable and cohesive workforce, improved morale, greater loyalty, stronger internal relationships among employees, and a more harmonious, meaningful work/life experience.

All of that is a boon for you and your company, and could well make for a happier Silicon Valley (at least your corner of it).

Every company has an opportunity to get this right—to create a more stable and productive workforce, and to bring a bit of sanity and calm to this harried, coffee-infused valley. 

So who’s with me? Are you ready to jump off Highway 101 and onto the “Save Silicon Valley” bandwagon?

 Clifford Stephan founder and principal consultant for OneCompensation has shaped and implemented compensation strategies for Fortune 100 and other emerging companies in some of the fastest growing industries.