August 6th, 2013
posted by D
For four years, I worked a job with so many good aspects– educating people, entertaining people, being creative, working in a field that I love and am an expert in, fun co-workers with similar interests, flexible hours, the ability to work from anywhere, good compensation, constant flattering feedback– that almost anyone would call it a dream job. And so it came as a shock to many of my friends, coworkers, and customers when I quit.
Initially, Chess.com had no income, and thus there was no question of how to divide it. But in 2011 and 2012, the company did extremely well. How was our hefty income distributed? In 2012 we had about 35 full-time employees, 8 owners (7 of whom were employees), and dozens of contractors. If we leave out Chess.com’s second co-founder, the CEO took home as much in 2012 as the other 30+ full-time employees. While the other employee-owners (including myself) had sizable incomes, most of Chess.com’s employees were compensated far below what they deserved.
As I grew more aware of the developing exploitation of our workers, I was sickened. The possibility reared its head that the primary goal of the company was not to create the greatest chess site for the world, but to create the greatest profit for one person.
I hoped this was not the case. For years I had thought the CEO was my friend, a man with values different from most corporate executives’. He had once agreed it seemed a good idea to have a maximum ratio between the highest and lowest salaries in a company, suggesting the ratio should be between five and ten. Now in our company that number exceeded forty. Did this not trouble him? No. I pleaded for respect and fair compensation, suggesting multiple mechanisms for the company to share its profits with the fantastic people who created them. And my requests were quite modest: for example, I was willing to work for one quarter of my previous pay if the company would share 1% of its profits among its workers. All were rejected. It became clear that the status quo was indeed what he wanted, and that it would not be changing.
There is an interesting argument that continuing my work would provide value to millions, while the numbers in one person’s bank account are of little consequence. Much as I long for a day where the numbers in bank accounts are as meaningless as those in videogames, we currently live in a world where money is largely interchangeable with power. I further consider concentrations of power to be the greatest threat to humankind (this contention is the subject of a future essay). To expend the greater part of my time and energy increasing the concentration of money and power in a single pair of hands seems like an extremely dangerous occupation, so, regretfully, I had to walk away from the coworkers, friends, chess-lovers, and projects that I so loved.
How is it that a wonderful group project, with fifty plus people working on it, and millions actively engaged in the community should be used for this purpose of a single person’s enrichment? The answer lies in the structure of the economy, and the corporation specifically. Chess.com has a single person who can make any decision he pleases (the CEO), regardless of anyone else’s opinion, and a single person who chooses that CEO (the majority owner, the same person). In other corporations, there may be a small group of two or three owners who amongst themselves hold decision-making sway. This means lack of accountability, lack of input from many people, conflict of interest, and almost no check upon selfishness and corruption. And so throughout the economy we see bosses and their buddies setting their own compensation arbitrarily high while relegating the vast majority of the workers to poverty.
Within our present legal framework, there is no recourse. The law is written by and for the few wealthy and powerful individuals, so its goal is merely to perpetuate this situation where one person dominates many. In retrospect, I can only regret the damage I have done, wishing I had not fallen for the typical “the boss is your friend” trick, and that I’d been more savvy about the horrors that are corporations.
I have felt for months that I owed this explanation to the people I worked with and for over the last four years. Its publication was postponed for a long time because when I left I was sad, upset, insulted, disappointed, angry. I did not want to do anything based on those feelings, and so I waited and considered at length how to communicate this message. Even when lies were posted on Chess.com, I held my tongue. I needed to be sure of my feelings, thoughts, and expression.
One important question I had to resolve was: could we the various stakeholders in Chess.com do anything to save the site from its owner? I’ve spent months reflecting upon this question, without coming up with any satisfying answer; my ideas and hopes seem unrealistic. I think any number of letters from customers, co-workers, and co-owners would fall upon a pair of deaf ears. I think my co-workers do not have the economic independence to leave and start over without the boss. Still, I hope one day to help build an online chess community without a greedy overlord.