BrewDog: who is brewer co-founder James Watt - and what did staff say in open letter about ‘toxic culture’?

Former employees of the Scottish beer company wrote to management in an open letter published on Twitter

A number of former BrewDog employees have issued an open letter to the brand, alleging that the company fostered “a culture of fear” and “toxic attitude”.

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Who is James Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie?

The open letter specifically named co-founder James Watt, saying that the 'responsibility for this rotten culture' lies with him (Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

James Watt and Martin Dickie are the two co-founders of the Scottish brewery and pub chain BrewDog.

The two grew up close to each other, and Dickie was Watt’s flatmate when they both lived in Edinburgh.

While Watt pursued a degree in law and economics at Edinburgh University, Dickie studied distilling at Heriot-Watt University.

Watt graduated from Edinburgh University in 2004. He found a job as a trainee solicitor, but quit after two weeks.

Following Dickie’s graduation, he spent several years working in various distilleries and breweries.

They founded the company in 2007, both 24 years old, and by its second year it had become Scotland’s largest independent brewery.

In an interview with The Scotsman, Dickie said that he is “responsible for production and James is in charge of all the other things”.

BrewDog began as a brewery in Fraserburg, and has since evolved into one of the biggest and most recognisable brands in the UK brewing industry.

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Who are Punks with Purpose?

Punks with Purpose is a collective made up of former BrewDog employees who have joined together to allege a “culture of fear” at the company.

The name is a reference to BrewDog’s flagship brand Punk IPA.

On the Punks with Purpose website, it specifically thanks Brienne Allen and Siobhan Buchanan “for their work exposing sexism and misogyny in the beer industry” and says that their bravery “inspired [them] to finally speak out”.

What did the open letter say?

On 9 June, Punks with Purpose shared an open letter with BrewDog on Twitter - the letter is now also available on the Punks with Purpose website as well.

The letter started by saying that the purpose of the statement was “to make known the feelings of former staff regarding the atmosphere fostered at BrewDog, since its inception, in the hope that it might explain why so many allegations have come to light”.

Punks with Purpose explained the company fostered “a culture of fear” and “toxic attitude”, and that the rapid growth and success of the brand was built on staff who were “left burnt out, afraid and miserable”.

The letter said: “It doesn’t matter which part of the business we worked in; production, bartending, sales, operations, packaging, quality, marketing or HR, we all felt that in our day to day working lives, there were at best hurdles, and at worst genuine safety concerns.

“We felt that no matter how these were raised, the likelihood was we would be met with some variation on “that’s just the way things are”. Sometimes it was linked to James [Watt] directly, sometimes it was because someone in a position of power felt enabled to act in such a manner.

“We believe these toxic attitudes towards junior staff trickled down throughout the business from day one, until they were simply an intrinsic part of the company. So many of us started our jobs there eagerly, already bought into the BrewDog ethos, only to very quickly discover that “fast-paced” meant “unmanageable”, and “challenging” meant “damaging”.

“Some people (no names, but as a group we know who they are) quickly discovered that this could be exploited, and allow them to treat other staff however they liked without repercussions – making them feel belittled and/or pressured into working beyond their capacity, and often eventually feeling forced out of the business – because that was perceived as the way the company operated, and if we didn’t like it, we should leave.

“Every single one of us worked with at least one of these people, who often quickly rose through the ranks as someone loyal to James [Watt] and his preferred ways of working.”

The letter added: “We will not make specific accusations here, because quite frankly we cannot risk the wrath of BrewDog’s notoriously trigger-happy legal team; but suffice to say that a significant number of people have admitted they have suffered mental illness as a result of working at BrewDog.”

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Why did the letter specifically name James Watt?

The open letter featured a passage directed specifically at BrewDog co-founder James Watt.

It said: “James, this next passage is for you.

“It is with you that the responsibility for this rotten culture lies. Your attitude and actions are at the heart of the way BrewDog is perceived, from both inside and out.

“By valuing growth, speed and action above all else, your company has achieved incredible things, but at the expense of those who delivered your dreams.

“In the wake of your success are people left burnt out, afraid and miserable. The true culture of BrewDog is, and seemingly always has been, fear.

“You go on LinkedIn and claim the buck stops with you, but do you have the guts to look at the team you have built around you and admit that the overwhelming majority of them are quietly afraid that their next mistake could be their last at BrewDog?

“In the last few weeks, the silence has been deafening – this is not the time to try and quietly wait things out.”

What did the letter ask for?

The letter ended by asking for “genuine, meaningful change at BrewDog”.

It said: “We mean more than starting the search for a Mental Health ambassador (who’ll likely last less than a year after none of their plans are taken seriously) or pointing staff to an HR team who are often perceived to be there solely to protect the company.

“We mean starting with a genuine apology from anyone and everyone who has worked for BrewDog and treated people like objects; harassing, assaulting, belittling, insulting or gaslighting them.

“It’s the absolute minimum we should expect from you, and yet we still don’t actually expect to see one. We hope we’re wrong.”

The signatories of the letter included the names or initials of 76 former BrewDog members, “plus 45 (and counting, as of 9 June 2021) former staff who did not feel safe to include either their names or initials. Make of that what you will”.

Has BrewDog responded to the letter?

Ahead of an official response from BrewDog as a company, co-founder Watt shared his own statement on Twitter.

He said: “At Brewdog we are focussed on building the best business we can, which is why the open letter we saw on Twitter was so upsetting, but so important.

“Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of that letter, but to listen, earn and act.

“As a fast-growing business, we have always tried to do the best by our team - we do have thousands of employees with positive stories to tell as a result.

“But the Tweet we saw last night proves that on many occasions we haven’t got it right. We are committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always; and we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more. But most of all, right now, we are sorry.

“It’s hard to hear those comments, but it must have been harder to say them. We appreciate that and we will endeavour to honour that effort and courage with the real change it deserves.

“We aren’t going to make excuses, we’re going to take action. From our commitment to sustainability to our passion for beer, BrewDog has always been defined by taking responsibility and continually improving. This is no exception.”