0 min left

Is Everyone’s Favorite Luggage Brand Too Toxic to Carry?

What is going on at Away luggage? Reports of a toxic work environment have dominated the news and made employees everywhere feel reluctant to Slack one another. But, what exactly went on in the luggage brand that’s a favorite of FlyerTalk and over 300,000 frequent fliers around the world? It turns out that while the brand’s motto was about customers making connections, employees were feeling anything but connected. Words like “abusive,” “toxic workplace” and “public humiliation” abound in the leaked memos, emails and Slack messages that brought the internal workings at Away to light. But, one question remains on customers’ minds: should we still buy their bags? 

It’s Not a Bag, It’s a Lifestyle

In a drama that makes reality television seem staid in comparison, Away co-founder Steph Korey has stepped away from her position as CEO following a polished apology letter late last week. Although Korey ushered the company from a plucky startup to the brand behind the signature bags in the hands of more than 300,000 frequent travelers, the embattled executive couldn’t survive the fallout from reports that she personally helped to create an abusive and toxic workplace after emails in which she publicly humiliated workers came to light.

That is not an especially great look for a venture that sells itself as creating a more thoughtful travel experience along with its line of revolutionary carry-on bags. But, a CEO at another company might have had an easier time weathering a storm created by the leak of unflattering emails. Away, however, had billed itself as a lifestyle brand. And, a large part of that lifestyle includes allusions to ethical, sustainable and thoughtful travel.

“The world is a shared place, and every trip is part of the exchange, no matter the destination. We believe in making connections: on the road, online, and in person,” Away proclaims on its company website. “We value access over aspiration and exploration over escape. For us, all time away is time well spent.”

“No More PTO”

For a brand that built itself around vacation time, there was never a good time for the (fascinating) exposé by The Verge’s Zoe Schiffer, detailing how Korey repeatedly restricted her employees’ time off in a caustic communication in the workplace-popular messaging platform Slack:

“I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability…

“To hold you accountable – which is a very important business skill translatable to many different work settings … no more pto (paid time off) or wfh (work from home) requests will be considered from the 6 of you … I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity.”

Other employees, all of whom had quit by the time the article was published, described intense pressure to work overtime,

“She would say ‘I’ll be working late tonight — dinner is here if any of you can work beside me. I mean, leave if you have to, but I have to stay…
“Her messages were long and loving, but they were manipulative. If she didn’t hear from you she’d just contact you directly asking for verbal confirmation you could work.”

Often they’d have to work after midnight. One employee reported that customer service representative Xandie Pasanen posted this message to the Slacked her at 1 AM when they were still in the office:

“Okay everyone! Take a photo with your computer in bed when you get home. Here’s mine!”

In the photo, Pasanen was in bed wearing a face mask, still working.

Your Holiday Is Cancelled

Employees at Away also reported that they were pressured to work over the holidays. On New Year’s Eve 2018, Pasanen sent another Slack message to employees—one that was a whopping 1,217 words long—that told them they had two options: to take the day off as planned, and the team would fall even more behind, or they could each work for six hours and get a month off as a reward.

A few weeks later, Korey herself asked Away’s customer experience managers to have their associates cancel their holiday travel plans and to instruct those who had already booked travel to work from home.

A Question of Customer Service

Founded in 2015, Away quickly became a favorite luggage brand among frequent flyers. FlyerTalk members on the thread dedicated to questions about and reviews of Away, not only laud the suitcases themselves but also marvel at the customer service and willingness of Away to stand behind their generous warranty promises.

Ironically, it was that pressure to provide customer service that led Korey to ask employees to put in 16 hour days (resulting in hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime) and berate them openly on the company’s Slack channel in exchanges that employees described as “like having your pants pulled down in front of the entire company.”

Sorry, Not Sorry

“Starting and growing a company is incredibly hard and I’ve made mistakes as we’ve built Away,” Korey wrote in a mea culpa posted to Twitter on December 6th.  “At times I expressed myself in ways that hurt the team. I can imagine how people felt reading those messages; I’m appalled and embarrassed reading them myself. I’m not proud of my behavior in those moments and I am sincerely sorry what I said and how I said it. It was wrong, plain and simple.”

The Aftermath

Away officials have vehemently denied that Korey’s abrupt resignation had anything to do with the headline-making scandal associated with her management style. Media reports citing unnamed sources, however, say that her decision to step down was accelerated as a direct result of the unfavorable media attention centering on her behavior.

“At the beginning of the year, our co-founders recognized the need to bring in additional leaders to help manage the company and accelerate growth,” the company told Vox in a statement. “Steph Korey launched a search for an executive to become COO. During the course of that process, we met a fantastic candidate in Stuart Haselden. During our months of discussions with him, it became clear his experience and skills make him uniquely qualified to be our next CEO.”

A Case for the Future

Although at least one FlyerTalker said the news of a toxic workplace at Away is causing second thoughts about purchasing the designer luggage, other posters say the bags are much too stylish and convenient to allow internal human resource issues to change their holiday shopping wishlist. More recent news that Korey would step down didn’t move that needle too drastically.

“I was debating whether to use my $100 Amex Green card credit on one of these bags, but after reading that I cannot financially support this company in good conscience,” raycosm wrote in a December 5th post. “It also causes me to question the value of a lifetime warranty from this company because these are not the things that a company that will last a long time does. This is just not something that an ethical company does.”

Have your own opinions? Join the FlyerTalkers in this discussion in the Travel Products forum.

Comments are Closed.
RUAMKZ December 23, 2019

Bad article, overall. Just like others have said, it was implied that something "physically" toxic with the components/finish. And I've never heard of these guys, either. It's not like it's Skyway, Samsonite....or even Eminent.....seen the bags, though, in more "basic" colors, like bone or gray. And who works at home? The sales and marketing departments possibly have that option. Oh.....OK, the bags themselves are probably outsourced to a factory in China. (That is my guess). I never heard of Slack, either.

drvannostren December 18, 2019

FWIW, I also have never heard of these guys, though I think I may have seen grey/black versions of these bags. Of course those could just be generic eBAGS too. Going into this article I thought the bags were literally toxic, like the plastic or the paint was bad.

drvannostren December 18, 2019

I mean...I hate being one of those "entitled millenials" people, especially being a millenial myself. But MOST of this sounds, pretty normal to me. Does that mean things shouldn't change? No of course not. Guess who works through the holidays? Cops, firefighters, movie theatre employees, mall workers, countless other people and oh ME, airport workers. We make it possible for all the lucky ones who get holidays off, to still do the things they wanna do. So I have ZERO sympathy for anyone who cries about working holidays. There's tons of people out there working hard every day that don't get multiple PTOs a year. Does that make it right? No not really but I also don't think anyone should really be crying about it. Pressuring people to work OT? That's not a great look, but as long as OT is paid (which the article does say at least some OT wasn't paid) then I have no issue with that. Lots of people work long hours to get by or *GASP* 2 jobs. The horror! Abusing employees isn't right. But the majority of the stuff written here sounds to me like the founder of a startup trying to get a bunch of people to care as much as she did, maybe not in the best way, but also not trying to be malicious. If you're unsatisfied with your job, your hours, your pay, your days off, either ask for a change, or quit and get a job that suits you better. Pretty simple to me.

Sydneyberlin December 18, 2019

Everyone's favorite... What the heck? Never heard of this brand. What a click bait- I thought at first that I might have missed some scandal involving Rimowa or Samsonite but no, some brand no one has ever heard of!

Moyerclan December 17, 2019

Good points all.....but I still have a granddaughter who would love a bag those colors.