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.


Anonymous said...

Cry me a fucking river. When an exec gets fired all of a sudden people get sensitive and compassionate. Where's that compassion when a fucking entry-level worker publicly mouths off at other employees while drunk?

Furthermore, getting shitfaced and drunk-tweeting isn't "a mental health issue". It's a fucking adult making poor choices.

Anonymous said...

I understand your point regarding bipolar and depression and even executives and A players can deal with this real world issue.

Regarding Rocky, he quit on his own terms. He says he resigned before the entire incident. Then went on a tweet spree publicly discrediting other high profile employees and publicly trying to recruit others. Are you arguing that PayPal should have asked an employee who quit to come back from vacation and into HQ? I'm not clear on your point there. Please elaborate.

Anonymous said...

The guy publicly insulted executives on Twitter after resigning that day in an email (that he posted on Twitter). If you ran a business, someone quit, then started insulting employees of yours, would your first thought really be "this guy is bipolar"?

And frankly, your amateur diagnosis of a bipolar incident doesn't help people with actual mental illness any more than ignoring it.

Tim Geoghegan said...

Very well-said. I was wondering why so few called this out as it went on.

For all the otherwise intelligent people in the tech biz, it's amazing how few understand the typical signs of mental illness and have even mentioned this.

Anyone who has been following the story would've seen some very possible signs of a manic episode. Who, at this man's level and skill, would continue like this for so long? Instead, we watched as so many in tech ridiculed, lambasted, and egged-on this very public breakdown.

Though occasional jokes and jabs from strangers responding to news stories is to be expected, it's those who are closer to the industry who should have rallied to help. I hope this failure by so many until now was a result of ignorance rather than a sign of callous and sociopathic douchebaggery on their behalf.

I don't know this guy. I only started following the story after Cindy Gallop asked for people to help once it hit the news. Maybe he is ill or maybe he's just like this.

But if it is indeed a mental health issue, as you also see as a possibility, then this executive – this person – did not have a meltdown. His internal chemistry had a meltdown. It went out of whack in the same way any parts of any of our bodies can falter. In the same way that a tech company's servers can go down and it's not that tech co's aim.

Again, there's a possibility that he wasn't suffering. But here's a strong possibility that he was. And if he was, many very smart people failed him and that's worrying.

Shouldn't we seek to understand people first? And only then make a judgment? To show compassion, attempt to resolve a problem – before resorting to the herd mentality of our primal ape ancestors, banishing him to the forest alone?

That's what's supposed to make us different. That's what's supposed to make us human.

Anonymous said...

Suppose I am a highly credible individual and have tens of thousands of followers. If I start insulting you, your work and your colleagues publicly on twitter and it will appear on media all over the internet - would you be ok with that? Even if I apologize later on that I called you an ass*ole because I had a temporary mental problem? I am sure you would defend yourself as PayPal did..

myke myers said...

I can see that you care about your friend, and as someone who has experience in this arena, I can understand your point of view very much.
However, I would also suggest you step back and look at it from PayPal's point of view. I won't even get into the rumors about what lead up to all this - let's just look at this incident on it's own.
Employee sends you an email Friday saying he wishes to resign, is giving two weeks notice but would like to be released immediately. Response is - let's sort it out monday. No big deal there.
Employee then goes on a drunken insane twitter tirade insulting high-level employees. Then wakes up the next day and issues a half-assed non excuse (sorry but 20 hour days are a typical tuesday for most devs, and we don't do this sort of thing). At that point - I don't think PayPal has any obligation whatsoever. He made it known he no longer wished to be a part of paypal. he wanted to be released immediately (read his email) - and his actions made that request a no-brainer for them.

In what world is it an executives job to make a medical diagnosis of someone nearly 3000 miles away? In what world is it even possible, let alone their responsibility? It's a crappy situation, but I have to kind of side with PayPal on this one. If things played out differently, and his behavior was becoming erratic - sure, maybe sitting him down and saying "hey, take some time and sort yourself out, we're worried about you" would be the better move. But the way this went down, that wasn't even really a possibility.

Anonymous said...

If a white American behaved like this, it would have been grounds for firing if he had not already left, and his ability to get rehired anywhere else would be toast. No tears for Kevin Flanagan I see, only sympathy for someone who's had a nice ride at the expense of the American worker. Just another overfed Brahmin here, with a staggering sense of entitlement and an ego the size of Texas.