Former Wikipedia Foundation Staff Claim Workplace ‘Bullying,’ Anti-Union Retaliation

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia
GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty

A former staffer at the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, recently published a statement accusing high-level Foundation managers of workplace bullying based on his autism. Earlier this month, other former staff came forward with similar allegations of mistreatment by Foundation management. Some alleged they were subject to retaliation after complaining of the treatment with one suggesting it was tied to his union organizing activities.

Several Wikipedia editors pushed co-founder Jimmy Wales for action at the Foundation, where Wales sits on the Board of Trustees. However, Wales rebuffed these requests by suggesting staff should pursue matters through internal channels, despite several former staff alleging those channels were tried and failed.

James Hare, who worked as an associate product manager at the Foundation from 2018 to 2019, posted a statement to a Wikipedia discussion area on May 22, where he discussed his experience working at the non-profit. In his statement, Hare spoke favorably of his involvement in Wikipedia and related projects, but when he began working for the Foundation that owns the site he claimed: “What I got for my lifetime of work was the experience of working with bullies.”

Hare, who is autistic, alleged two members of executive management had made him “the object of repeated ridicule” during his time at the Foundation. One of them, Hare alleges, only ever spoke to him in order to make fun of him. While not identifying either member of management, Hare said both were still employed at the Foundation at the time of his statement. According to Hare, this treatment together with a generally chaotic work environment prompted him to resign after 18 months and he further stated his experience at the Foundation left him with post-traumatic stress.

Over a week after Hare’s initial statement, other former staffers came forward about their harsh experiences working at the Wikimedia Foundation. Dan Garry, a former lead product manager at the Foundation who edits as “Deskana” on Wikipedia, stated he experienced less serious issues that left him feeling unwelcome and resigned out of concern for his mental health. Former senior software engineer Brad Jorsch, or “Anomie” on Wikipedia, claimed that he “tried to push back against increasing attempts at marginalization and workplace bullying” and submitted a complaint to human resources only to face “massive retaliation” a month later. Another former staffer, Adam Wight, also claimed bullying from executives.

Concerns from the former staff tended to also express dismay at the Foundation culture, which they saw as more befitting a for-profit corporation rather than a non-profit institution. Garry described it as “not being that different from short term profit-focused companies” with Jorsch arguing management was “fostering a culture where their own image and career progression is a major goal in a way” he would “associate more with cut-throat for-profit companies than with a non-profit.”

The allegations of mistreatment were raised with Wikipedia co-founder Wales on his personal discussion page after Hare’s initial statement and again earlier this month after others came forward with their experiences at the Foundation. Editors pressed Wales to assure the claims would be properly investigated. In response, Wales stated he was “unable to comment on specific personnel matters” other than to offer his assurances it would be examined, claiming the Foundation was looking into it.

Wales further rejected the idea of editors appealing to him on such matters, calling himself a “community” member, though acknowledging he could get concerns before the Foundation board where he holds a seat. He stated there were “appropriate mechanisms” for handling staff issues and raising the matter to him was therefore inappropriate, even though several of the allegations involved former staff having used the same mechanisms only to allegedly face retaliation.

Responding to this discussion, Wight elaborated on his bullying claims. Wight alleged that he was called in by several executives and told an internal e-mail he sent complaining of perceived excesses of management was too “forceful” in its tone. He states he was further told by an HR manager that messages they exchanged about potential reform were undesired (though he states the manager had encouraged him on the matter) and might be included in a complaint against Wight. According to Wight, this occurred as he was looking to organize a staff union. Wight further alleged that, after citing legal protections for labor-organizing and whistleblowers, his pay was docked.

Allegations of employee mistreatment at the Foundation come as it is imposing a “code of conduct” for staff and users contributing to Wikipedia and other sites it owns. The code of conduct includes rules regarding bullying and harassment, as well as advancing various left-wing identity politics agenda points. Foundation statements on the code of conduct have specifically touted it as a way to address the alleged “gender gap” and “racial equity” issues on Wikipedia and affiliated sites, areas where corporate media coverage avoids its usual praise of the online encyclopedia. Prior efforts by the Foundation to appease such concerns have contributed to successful editor revolts.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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