Wednesday, May 7, 2014

PayPal's Reaction to Departed Exec Required Better Appreciation of Mental Health Issues

Rocky Agrawal's public meltdown on Twitter this week attracted its fair share of rubberneckers who were perversely entertained by his five-day break from reality. Many in the virtual crowd of Silicon Valley workers, VCs and tech media pundits egged-on the fired former PayPal Director of Strategy as he manically tweeted insults about his former colleagues, and made wild claims about raising money for a supposed new venture coupled with six-figure job offers to people who could locate him in New York City based on his tweets.

Let me first disclose that I've known Rocky for several years. He hired me as a product manager at AOL. Seeing a friend and colleague fall from grace in this manner saddened me as I watched my feed in realtime. However I was more shocked by the callousness of PayPal in publicly firing him on Twitter and the lack of compassion of its CEO David Marcus towards someone who was obviously mentally unstable.  "I will not tolerate your mad rants any longer," wrote Marcus on PayPal's corporate blog claiming to defend the honor of his staff. But rather than exhibiting "Leadership" (the topic of his post) Marcus displayed what little regard he has for employees who breakdown in times of emotional crisis.

A bit of background for those not following this saga. Rocky was hired by PayPal a little over two months ago. He was a high-profile get for the company based on his two decades of product management experience for AOL, Microsoft and others.  He also appeared frequently on Bloomberg TV offering prescient commentary on the value of GroupOn and other second generation dot-com companies. For some reason on Friday night while he was on vacation in New Orleans Rocky started sending out obscene messages on Twitter about PayPal employees  (I don't think its constructive to repeat them) and others that were just plain gibberish.  He later claimed that they were supposed to be private direct messages written on a new Android phone that malfunctioned. On Saturday, PayPal fired back -- literally:

Rocky moved on to New York City and started to go into destructive overdrive:

Observers following the stream could plainly see what was going on: outbursts that broke through social guardrails, delusions of grandeur, and long periods without sleep all seemed indicative of a bipolar disorder and a manic episode.

According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 14 million  Americans suffer from bi-polar disorders -- almost half of them are, perhaps like Rocky, undiagnosed. Handling such employees can be extremely taxing for any HR department. "Some of the bipolar people can be your greatest stars and the biggest problems all at the same time," says Tom Wooton who has developed a series of workshops for employers on how to deal with bipolar disorders in the workplace.

Wooton advises companies that a bi-polar employee can be both a high performer - with lots of energy, creativity, and ideas - but also cause problems with coworkers or engage in risky behavior. Regardless, these employees have to be reasonably accommodated under the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and can't be easily fired (or forced to resign) if problems arise.

I don't know if Rocky had other problems with PayPal that caused such a precipitous reaction, but Paypal should have asked him to end his vacation and return to HQ once his insulting tweets started. In person the company may have been able to better assess the situation and helped Rocky decide whether he needed medical care. Instead it tossed him overboard and left him all alone without the company of friends or family to absorb the shock.

To truly add insult to injury CEO Marcus then declared in his blog posting that Rocky needed assistance but that it was someone else's problem: "Now...if you're a close friend of Rocky's and you're out there, I'd strongly suggest getting to him sooner rather than later, as his behavior is extremely worrisome. We at PayPal are putting this episode behind us, as always working on behalf of our customers."

Let me suggest to Mr. Marcus that there are millions of Paypal customers like me who have friends and relatives suffering from bipolar disorders or other mental illnesses. How you treat your employees is a good indication of how you will treat your customers when the chips are down -- which is to say not very well.

Update: I spoke to Rocky earlier this evening. First, his brother has flown in from San Francisco and is with him. This  is good.  Rocky insists he wasn't fired but had resigned by email before ever sending his epic tweets. The sequence according to Rocky has been  reported by Business Insider. Rocky is upset that PayPal's tweet was vaguely worded so as to give the impression that he was fired. Rocky says that he resigned because three executives who he respected had just left PayPal and he came to the realization that company's product was would never meet his own high standards. He felt that he could do better by executing his own vision so he fired off an e-mail on Friday night at 9:34 pm. He receievd an e-mail from his manager saying that they would sort it out on Monday morning. Howver it  seems that his nocturnal misadventures between Friday night and Saturday made this discussion moot.

My take is that Rocky's resignation,  his Twitter comments against PayPal employes, and his growing mania in New York cannot be viewed as isolated incidents. They are an escalating set of events that need to be looked at together in order to be properly understood. It did not help at all that PayPal poured fuel on the fire. I've counseled Rocky that he needs to take a break and with the help of a therapist he can start to undertand why his,  actions which make so much sense to him, caused the rest of us so much worry.