James Hare, a former Wikimedia Foundation staffer with autism, recently came out to call out bullies at his workplace. In his statement published on May 22, he accused two high-level managers of Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, bullying him because of his autism. Other foundation’s former staffers have also raised similar concerns.
Hare alias Harej worked as an associate product manager for around 18 months between 2018 and 2019. He chalked out his experience working at the non-profit. Notably, Hare suffers from autism and during his tenure at the foundation, it became a subject of ridicule by the seniors.
James Hare statement
James Hare said that he had been avoiding sharing his experience at the foundation for two years as he could not figure out how he could express it. Hare started contributing to Wikipedia in 2004, and because of his contributions, he was finally hired by the foundation in 2018. However, at the end of his time at the foundation, he was not proud of working there. He said, “What I got for my lifetime of work was the experience of working with bullies.”
Claiming that the foundation is run by bullies, he said that two executive management members repeatedly ridiculed him during the period he worked as a volunteer and during his job at the foundation. One of the members who had interacted with him only a few times used to make fun of the verbal gaffe he had made or mocked him for something he said or did. The other member often made jokes about him and did it often on his face. He said, “I had an experience of interviewing with this executive, only for them to make fun of me to my face in subsequent encounters.” Notably, both of them still work at Wikimedia Foundation.
James said he did not take the names as he has no intentions of using them. However, he added, “I don’t want my post to be oversighted, but they still hold positions of power, and they are still responsible for managing staff.” James said that there is a lack of leadership at the highest level in the foundation. What he suffered was not limited to him, but several others, especially women and women of colour, in particular, face hostile work environment. He said, “Women, and women of colour, in particular, are chewed up and spit out by the management.”
In James words, “I am an adult with autism. Over the years, especially when I was younger, it is inevitable that I would say and do things that are kind of funny. And I have been made fun of my entire life for it. I can forgive myself for saying awkward things, and I can forgive people for what they did as children. What I cannot forgive is a fully grown adult, in a position of significant authority, bullying another adult in their workplace. It is unforgivable.
After a chaotic 18 or so months of working at Wikimedia, I turned in my badge. The experience left me with posttraumatic stress disorder, seriously adrift on a moral and emotional level, and occasionally prone to psychotic episodes. Over time I have been able to forgive the dysfunction that defined my work experience, but I could not let go of the fact that there are bullies who work for the Wikimedia Foundation and still work there.
As Wikipedians, we are a neurodiverse community and come from many different backgrounds. We need management that is not just charismatic, not just good at giving speeches, but empathetic and compassionate, who genuinely understands our experiences.
I feel terrible and exposed writing this. I may be opening myself up to retaliation. But I have been sitting on this for so long, and it has tortured me so much. And I can’t live with myself, not knowing that this perspective is invisible. You are not going to hear it from the slick Communications team, and you’re not going to hear it from people who think speaking up will make them unemployable. But at this point, I don’t think I have anything to lose. And if others speak up because of me, I hope it will be worth it.”
Several staffers called out the hostile environment at Wikimedia
Soon after Hare made his experience public, other former staffer came forward to share their experiences at the foundation. Dan Garry, former lead product manager, Wikipedia alias Deskana, said he felt unwelcomed at the foundation and resigned out of concern for his mental health. Garry said the foundation behaves similar to “short term profit-focused companies”.
Brad Jorsch, former senior software engineer, Wikipedia alias Anomie, said he tried to push back against increasing attempts at marginalisation and workplace bullying. He submitted a complaint at HR but faced massive retaliation instead of getting support from the Foundation’s leadership. He added, “Management was fostering a culture where their own image and career progression is a major goal in a way [that] associate more with cut-throat for-profit companies than with a non-profit.”
Another staffer Adam Wight also claimed he experiences bullying at the foundation. He said he was called in by several executives after he filed a complaint. They told him that the email he sent complaining of perceived excesses of management was too “forceful” in its tone. An HR manager further told him that the messages they had exchanged about potential reform at the foundation might get included in a complaint against Wight. He further alleged after he cited legal protection for labour- organising and whistleblowers, the foundation docked his salary.
Jimmy Wales refused to act
After several Wikipedia editors reportedly pushed co-founder Jimmy Wales for action, he refused to act and asked the staffers to pursue the matter through internal channels. Interestingly, his statement came after the staffers claimed that such channels were already tried and failed. Wales stated he could not comment on specific personal matters and assured that the foundation was looking into it.
Support poured in for Hare
James’s post was shared on a discussion forum titled ‘wikipediocracy‘, where several came in support. A user named TheHandThatFeedsYou said, “Wikipedia is a toxic environment, lots of hostility, like a war zone/ battleground in some places.” Another user, Moral Hazard, wrote, “I am sorry that he was mistreated, and I hope that all of us would welcome James if he arrives.”
The Garbage Scow called it unacceptable workplace behaviour and said, “Completely unacceptable. I don’t know if someone with autism is considered part of a protected class, but he could have a nice lawsuit if they are, and people in positions of power above him created an environment of harassment that drove him to quit. What he’s describing is absolutely forbidden by the written policy of every US employer I can think of.”
The support also came as comments to his original post. A Wikipedia editor Yngvadottir said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you, and thank you for standing up and saying it.” Legoktm thanked him for writing about his experience and said, “Thank you for stepping up.”
Belov, a Wikipedia editor, said, “Thank you for being honest about your experiences, Harej. It’s really disappointing to hear this. As you’ll well know, autistic people are a major part of our community, well in excess of their proportion in the general population. Any company which truly appreciated that it is built on and run by our volunteer labour would bend over backwards to be accommodating towards autistic and neurodivergent people. No doubt these management figures have also mocked neurotypicals and made them feel like shit too. And a disorganised workplace is a hotbed for mental health problems. Not a proud moment for the WMF.”
Wikipedia has a history of getting into controversies
This is not the first time Wikipedia has fallen into a ditch full of controversies. Recently, it was revealed that a page on a fictitious train ran for years on Wikipedia without anyone noticing. It was used as a reference for many academic reports. Countless reports of Wikipedia pages being vandalized to push agendas have come to light on several occasions. Wikipedia specifically failed to acknowledge Delhi Riots 2020 being anti-Hindu and painted Hindus as the culprits. Editors vandalised Late Rohit Sardana’s Wikipedia page and posted derogatory remarks.