Home / Tech / Netflix insiders describe the internal 'postmortem' emails that break down why employees were fired — and what it's like to write one (NFLX)

Netflix insiders describe the internal 'postmortem' emails that break down why employees were fired — and what it's like to write one (NFLX)

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  • After firing an employee, Netflix explains its reasons for letting the person go in an internal “postmortem” email, as people within the company call them.
  • Business Insider spoke with former Netflix employees to learn how these emails work in practice and what insiders really think about them. 
  • The postmortems are typically written by managers in collaboration with human resources and go out to the fired employee’s department.
  • It’s up to the manager’s discretion on how widely to distribute these emails and how detailed to be about the outgoing employee’s shortcomings.
  • Numerous insiders we spoke with said that, on occasion, the postmortems had been distributed through a company-wide listserv or reached people who had never worked directly with the fired employee.
  • Still, Blind, an anonymous workplace-networking app, found in a survey of its users that 75% of Netflix employees said the emails helped shape a better workplace culture.
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Netflix may have one of the happiest workforces in the US tech sector, but its internal culture isn’t for everyone.

Case in point: When an employee is fired, a “postmortem” email that details why the person was let go is sent around internally. A meeting may also be held.

These postmortems, which publications including The Wall Street Journal have reported on, are one of the more overt — and controversial — examples of Netflix’s unabashedly transparent culture.

The streaming company, which has seen its stock soar 460% to around $380 in the last five years, holds its employees to high standards. Its game-changing culture document says the company values traits like “candor,” “authenticity,” and “transparency.” It also equates Netflix to a professional sports team, and says “we give adequate performers a generous severance package,” according to the current culture memo. As such, firings happen regularly, and are followed by the postmortem emails or meetings.

We interviewed eight former Netflix employees, who spoke under condition of anonymity and whose identities are known to Business Insider, to learn how the postmortem emails work and what employees think about them.

The insiders largely embraced the postmortems as a useful way of keeping tabs on the comings and goings within the company, but wished for more consistency on how the emails were distributed and what went into them.

Netflix’s ‘postmortem’ emails are usually sent to anyone the fired employee worked with directly — but have also been distributed more widely

When an employee is fired at Netflix, a postmortem email explaining the person’s departure is written by that person’s manager, in collaboration with human resources, according to the Netflix insiders, who included three former employees who said they had drafted postmortems during their time at the company. 

The email dives into some of the reasons the person was let go.

It may say something like, “X was let go today because of communication issues,” or, “We had to let X go. He struggled with judgment and, after extensive feedback from his supervisor, failed to make significant improvements.”

Buzzwords from Netflix’s culture deck, which highlights 10 core values including “communication” and “judgment,” are common in postmortem emails, the insiders said.

Netflix, like many tech companies, has “at-will” employment, which means it can fire employees at any time.

The idea behind the postmortems is to be transparent with staffers about why someone got the axe, and avoid the internal gossip that can run rampant if no reasons are given.

“Being part of Netflix is like being part of an Olympic team,” Netflix said in a written statement to the Wall Street Journal, published in 2018. “Getting cut, when it happens, is very disappointing but there is no shame at all.”

The postmortem emails are supposed to go out to the fired employee’s department (or departments) they worked with directly, which could be hundreds of people.

But the employees that Business Insider spoke with said they also received postmortem emails about people they had never worked with.

“I’d get daily emails about people I didn’t even know that said they were let go,” one former employee said.

How did that happen? Generally it happened because of an overlap between different kinds of departure emails at Netflix, the insiders said.

The postmortem email is one type of departure email. It is usually about an individual, though it could detail the firings of more than one person, as in the case of layoffs. The email is usually sent at the manager’s discretion.

But Netflix also has an employee-wide listserv — called “Welcomes, farewells, and promotions” — where it distributes staff updates, as many companies do. Tucked in with announcements about new hires and promotions may be a line like: “X is departing today. It was a joint decision.” 

Departure emails sent through that listserv are usually meant for people who exit Netflix voluntarily. But, occasionally, postmortem emails are distributed via the listserv as well, and would reach all employees, the Netflix insiders said.

“There are several people who made the mistake of sending the postmortem out with the farewell emails,” another former employee said.

The postmortem emails rarely go into the real reasons a person was let go, insiders say

While Netflix’s postmortem emails are meant to stay true to company values like “authenticity” and “transparency,” the explanations for why employees were fired tend to be rather vague, the Netflix insiders said.

There are a handful of fireable reasons that are commonly cited in postmortem emails at Netflix, the insiders said.

They include:

  • “Repeated coaching,” meaning the employee received feedback from their supervisor and failed to make substantial changes.
  • “Communication issues.” Communication is one of the 10 core values outlined in Netflix’s culture memo.
  • “Struggled with [insert value from Netflix’s culture deck, such as ‘candor’].”

The postmortems may also cite feedback from the 360 reviews that Netflix conducts each spring, when people throughout the organization can give feedback to other employees.

One person Business Insider spoke with, who left Netflix in 2019, said he asked his boss to conduct the “keeper test,” or Netflix lingo for asking a manager whether they would fight to keep an employee, after the two had a disagreement. The person was subsequently let go. “Communication issues” was given as the cause of his firing in the postmortem email, he said.

“He put a surrogate reason,” the former employee said. “Usually, they don’t want to get into too much detail.”

Netflix does not have a template for these emails, but it does have two guiding principles:

  • Don’t include anything that you wouldn’t want the fired employee to read about themselves.
  • Include the fired employee’s contributions to Netflix.

“When we part ways with an employee, we always want to be respectful and gracious for what they’ve contributed,” Netflix said in a statement to Business Insider. “And we’ve become much more mindful of how this information is shared as we grow.”

Some managers Business Insider spoke with said they struggled with how much to detail to include. One former employee, who had written multiple postmortem emails, said he often tried to be “generous” about the reasons employees were fired, but was encouraged by human resources to be forthright.

“What was sometimes cause for debate in the company is how detailed some of those should be,” the source said.

Despite what people outside Netflix may think, company insiders are largely in favor of the postmortem emails

Despite the debate around how to describe an outgoing employee’s shortcomings, Netflix insiders largely seem to accept the postmortems.

Business Insider asked Blind, an anonymous-networking app with roughly 2,000 users who work at Netflix, to survey its users about the company’s postmortem emails. Blind requires a work email address to verify employment. Roughly 60 Netflix employees responded, from February 4 to 16.

Nearly all of the respondents — 97% — said they had received a postmortem email at Netflix. And about 75% of respondents said the postmortem emails helped shape a better culture at Netflix.

While the survey covered a small sampling of Netflix users, it suggests that employees, at least, generally value the postmortem emails.

The former employees that Business Insider spoke with also said that the postmortems — though “not exactly preferable” for the person being fired, as one insider put it — do help employees keep tabs on who is coming and going within the roughly 6,800-person organization, and feel secure in their own roles. Two of the people, in hindsight, said they wished they’d weighed in on what went into their own postmortems and that the emails were distributed more consistently.

One former employee that Business Insider spoke with said the postmortem emails can also raise opportunities to advance your career within the company.

An email announcing that multiple people within a department are being let go and a higher-level leader is stepping in to run the group could be an opening.

“If you happen to see teams struggling, leaders being replaced, and higher-level leaders stepping in,” the person said. “Then you go talk to that leader and say, ‘What can I do to help you?'”

Do you have tips about working at Netflix? Email this reporter at arodriguez@businessinsider.com. Email for Signal number.


Business Insider asked Netflix insiders how to get a job at the streaming company. See our coverage on BI Prime:

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  • Netflix’s 5 toughest job-interview questions, according to company insiders: These are some of the job interview questions prospective candidates should be prepared to answer at any stage of the hiring process.
  • Netflix’s recruiting boss reveals the team the company is staffing up the most in 2020: Netflix’s creative-production team will be its biggest hiring priority.
  • The top 10 slides from Netflix’s groundbreaking first culture deck that experts say had the most impact: Netflix’s culture deck is a must read for prospective candidates. Recruiters explain what sets Netflix’s culture apart from other tech companies.

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