Sunday, November 29, 2020

Bustle Digital Group: Employees try to unionize (2020)

    Bustle Digital Group is a digital media outlet with several different publications. Recently, the company has been facing criticism because of members of the staff announcing their plans to unionize. There are quite a few reasons for staff wanting to unionize such as staff wanting more diversity and equal pay, benefits and more job security, and more editorial independence.

The ethical theories would analyze the case in various ways. Individualists believe that a company’s only responsibility and its only goal should be to maximize profit for the business. Therefore, in the case of Bustle and its staff members wanting to unionize, individualists would not see anything ethically wrong with Bustle and their actions because they are prioritizing profit maximization. Utilitarians believe that the most important virtue is happiness and it should be brought out in all beings capable of feeling it. Therefore, they would argue that Bustle’s actions are unethical because employees are not happy with the working conditions. Kantians believe that people should never be used as just a mere means, that the ends need to justify the means. A kantian would see Bustle’s actions as unethical because they instruct their writers to write whatever will close a deal, therefore making them money and using their employees as a mere means. Finally, virtue theory teaches us the most important traits or virtues needed in order to be a virtuous leader. A virtue theorist would argue that the actions of Bustle are unethical because of the lack of honesty and trustworthiness that Bustle has shown its employees.

Going forward, Bustle needs to make changes in their company that will be a compromise to make both upper management and lower level employees happy, including making employee satisfaction one of their priorities.

Ethics Case Controversy

    Bustle Digital Group, which is made up of Bustle, Romper, Mic, Nylon, and Elite Daily among others has sought to become a top tier digital empire. However, early in October of 2020, many staffers at BDG announced their plans to unionize. In a letter sent to management at BDG, staffers said that they are unionizing to fight for fair and transparent compensation, diversity and inclusion commitments, and clear editorial independence and standards. This effort includes about 205 staffers from multiple departments. Included are members from editorial, creative, social and video and encompasses all of BDG’s publications.
The various companies and publications that make up Bustle Digital Group

It is no surprise that members of BDG have planned to unionize considering the controversy that has surrounded CEO Bryan Goldberg in recent years. Goldberg founded the company Bleacher Report, which was sold to CNN’s parent company in 2012. He then went on to found Bustle in 2013, a women-focused site in 2013. 

CEO and Founder of Bustle Bryan Goldberg

Since then Bustle has formed quite the portfolio of media brands through launching them internally or acquiring other financially distressed companies like Mic. However, Bustle’s acquisition of Mic came with some controversy. When Goldberg agreed to purchase Mic in a fire sale, he was then accused of union busting. Ahead of the acquisition, any staff members who had unionized a year prior were let go. Last November, Bustle laid off eight staffers and some freelancers out of nowhere. Then in April, they laid off about two dozen staffers and shut down a media brand they acquired about a year prior called “The Outline”. 

According to an article from Yahoo News, just two weeks after these layoffs BDG received a federal loan of $7.5 million aimed to help small businesses keep employees on payroll amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The company faced quite a bit of criticism after receiving the loan. The article also mentions how the company stated that the loan would allow them to undo salary cuts and offer more hours for part-time and freelance writers. The layoffs were a major turning point for staffers at BDG wanting to unionize. In an article from CNN, employees from BDG gave their opinions and reasoning for unionizing. For example, a part-time worker at Bustle named Kaitlyn Wylde stated that her interest in unionizing increased after the layoffs. Wylde stated that she began to panic that her longest-term job was not as stable as she had hoped. (CNN). Wylde told CNN business that she would like to see clearer job titles, benefits, and a better sense of community for part-time staffers like herself. She also stated that as a part-time worker, they aren’t on slack or zoom so she felt that she and other part-time workers missed out on a lot and were not treated fairly.

Another reason that employees at BDG want to unionize is for Editorial Independence & Transparency. The union that they are partnering with, The Writers Guild of America, East, provides the letter that BDG employees sent to management at Bustle announcing their plans to unionize. The letter states, “We cannot be asked to compromise our editorial integrity to fulfill a client’s needs simply to close a deal. We demand stronger safeguards between editorial and advertising; clearer insight into how editorial content is sold to clients; and a guarantee that no editorial employee shall be forced to write an article solely to please a client.” (WGAE). The employees feel that they should be able to write what they believe and give people the truth. They are unhappy because right now they feel like they are only allowed to write what they need to in order for Bustle to gain and maintain clients.

This time line lays out the events that prompted workers to want to unionize
Due to the fact that employees at Bustle want to unionize, it is important to understand what a union can actually do or help with in the workplace. According to the Utility Workers Union of America, a union can help workers with collective bargaining for things like higher wages, better benefits, and discussing personal issues with the company with HR. Now, just because they discuss these issues with the company, it doesn’t mean that changes will occur. A union just helps employees to have more bargaining power with the company. However, a union cannot force a company to make changes that the employees would like to see in the company it is more of just a support tool to help them.  


There are a few main groups of stakeholders in this case. One of the biggest stakeholders in the case is the management or higher up positions at Bustle. They are invested in this because they are the ones running the company and ensuring it is making money. They are also the ones that have to negotiate with the employees that are trying to unionize. They have a duty to their employees, their clients, and customers to do what is best for the company. Another group of stakeholders is the employees at Bustle. This includes the ones that want to unionize and those that don’t. The employees have a duty to their bosses, clients, and customers to fulfill the requirements of their job to the best of their ability in order for the company to be successful. The employees are also a group of stakeholders because many of the employees at BDG want to unionize to negotiate for better conditions in their work environment. A third group of stakeholders is the clients that Bustle has. They are invested and interested in the company and this particular case because if the workers follow through with unionizing, the steps they take may affect the clients relationships with the company. The last group of stakeholders would be customers of Bustle. They are interested and invested because they enjoy what Bustle has to offer them. The reason they would be interested and would care about this particular case is because if the workers unionize and changes are made to the company, it could lead to changes in the product or service that the customers are subscribed to.


According to Milton Friedman, Individualism is all about the company or business doing whatever they need to do within the law to maximize profit for the business. Machan tells us the same thing, however, Machan also says that at times the direct goal of profiting may need to be met by other indirect goals not aimed at profiting. He also says at times businesses, at times, may have other goals that may be prioritized over profit maximization. With the case of Bustle workers wanting to unionize an Individualist would not say that Bustle is doing anything wrong. One of the biggest reasons that Bustle staff members want to unionize is because they feel that they are constantly forced to compromise their editorial integrity. The reason they feel this way is because they claim that they are instructed to write whatever they need to in order to fulfill a clients needs or to close a deal. An Individualist would not see anything wrong with this because Bustle is asking their employees to write whatever they need to write to please clients or to close a deal for the goal of maximizing profits. Although they are instructing their workers to write in a way that may compromise their editorial integrity, they are not breaking any laws by doing this. However, this may be a time where other goals come before the goal of maximizing profit. An Individualist may say that things need to change because the writers should be able to write in a way that they can maximize profits for the company without compromising their integrity. However, they may say that unionizing is not the best way to do that, given that a union cannot force Bustle to change. Another way to go about this, from an Individualism standpoint, would be for management to meet with the writers and both sides to figure out a way to maximize profit and make the employees happy. In the end, an Individualist would not see anything wrong with Bustle’s actions because they are doing what is necessary to maximize profits within the law.


            A utilitarian would see this case as unethical because of the unhappiness that the workers are feeling and expressing. John Stuart Mill teaches us that happiness or pleasure are the only things of intrinsic value. He also teaches us that we should bring out happiness to all beings capable of feeling it, and that is what utilitarianism is all about. The reason that a utilitarian would see this case and the actions of Bustle as unethical is because of the clear unhappiness that the staff are feeling. At BDG the staff are not treated fairly and they are not given the respect that they deserve. They are also unhappy with the way that they are instructed to write their work. So, from a utilitarian standpoint, Bustle is clearly in the wrong. However, a utilitarian would not agree that unionizing is not the way to handle the situation. The reasoning behind this is that unionization would leave the management at Bustle unhappy. Based on the past controversy with Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg and unionization, it is clear that he does not like the idea of unionization in the company. So while it is important that the employees are happy with their workplace, utilitarianism tells us that everyone should be happy and that includes management at BDG. What a utilitarian would suggest is that the executive heads at Bustle sit down with employees so that both parties can discuss what they would like to change so that both can be happy. This way, employees can try to inflict changes that will make them happy and management will be happy because they won’t have to worry about a union that may only cause more problems and the company can focus on success. In the end a utilitarian would say that Bustle is in the wrong because their actions have led to the unhappiness of the employees, but the issues should be resolved in a way that makes everyone happy.


A Kantian would also see this case as unethical. Kant teaches us that we should never use people as a mere means to anything. He says that the end has to justify the means. When looking at the case of Bustle Digital Group and one of the biggest issues that is causing workers to want to unionize, a Kantian would definitely see Bustle’s actions as unethical. In the letter that staffers sent to management at Bustle, they state that they want to have more editorial independence. They claim that they are restricted in what they write because they are instructed to write what will please a client or close a deal. They feel that they are being forced to compromise their editorial integrity to fulfill a client’s needs and to close a deal. The reason a Kantian would see this as unethical is because it is clear that Bustle is using their writers as a mere means to please clients and be successful. Now, if the writers were happy with their work and what they were doing then it would be different because the ends would justify the means but in this case they don’t. A kantian side with the workers at Bustle because they do not agree with the treatment that they are receiving. Even though a kantian would say that the current situation is unethical, they may not think that a union is the way to go about resolving the issues because a union cannot force a company to change. They might suggest the employees meeting to discuss their issues, especially being used as a mere means, with the management at BDG and then if Bustle is refusing to make changes then they should get a union involved. The reason that a kant would suggest this is because they would say that things definitely do need to change because what is going on right now is completely unethical. Bustle workers are not being treated fairly and respectfully as they are just being used as a mere means to profit. 

Virtue Theory

            A virtue theorist would also agree that Bustle is in the wrong in this case. There are many traits that can make someone a virtuous leader. Bustle has violated a number of important virtues that are important to being a virtuous leader which is why a virtue theorist would see this case as unethical. Two of the most important virtues are honesty and trustworthiness. Bustle has not been very honest or trustworthy and this is why their employees want to unionize. The firing of two dozen employees out of the blue was one way that Bustle has not been honest or trustworthy to their employees. They eliminated an entire publication without warning laying off several staff. While they have the right to do this, and there isn’t anything a union can do about this, a virtue theorist would still agree that it was wrong because those employees trusted Bustle to provide them with a stable job. This has led to many other workers, especially part-time workers, fearing that their job may not be as stable as they had hoped. A virtue theorist may suggest that Bustle meet with all their employees to keep them updated on how the company is doing and whether they can afford to keep staff on rather than just firing them out of the blue. At least then they would be acting honestly, which is important with the current pandemic that is affecting everyone in lots of ways. Another way that Bustle has not been honest is by not giving their writers editorial independence. By Bustle instructing their employees to write what they need to write in order to fulfill a clients needs or close a deal, there is a good chance that they are not telling the truth and they are just saying what the client wants to hear. A virtue theorist would say this is unethical because forcing your writers to compromise their integrity and potentially lying to readers all so you can make money from closing deals with clients is wrong.

Justificated Ethics Evaluation

After researching this case, it is clear that there are lots of issues with how Bustle Digital Group is running the company and it is understandable why employees are upset. Personally, I agree with the employees that they are not being treated fairly and that they deserve respect and better treatment than what they are receiving. However, a union doesn’t seem like the best possible solution to their problems. Although a union may be helpful to them in the sense that they would have a little more bargaining power than just the employees going to management on their own, a union cannot force Bustle to do anything they can only help to negotiate. It seems like getting a union started or involved at Bustle would only make matters more difficult because it is clear that Bustle is not in favor of unionizing given the fact that CEO Bryan Goldberg faced criticism for being accused of union busting a few years ago. However, it does seem that management is willing to work with employees to resolve issues in a way that everyone will be happy. Senior manager Erika Abdelatif provided a statement to CNN saying “We want to make sure that everybody feels the sense of security and that there is transparency in pay, and that they can trust their work is being valued for what it is.” (Flynn, CNN). Given Abdelatif’s statement, it is clear that Bustle management does understand why employees are upset and they are working to find a way to resolve these issues so employees are happy. If Bustle is willing to listen to their employees and make changes then I don’t see a reason for the employees to unionize because it would only take up more time and effort and may upset management. That being said, I do feel that what has happened and what is currently happening at Bustle is unethical but if they are willing to make changes to create a better work environment for employees then that is great.

Company Action Plan

            The current issue at Bustle Digital Group is that staff members at BDG want to unionize because of personal issues that they have with the company and they do not feel that they are being treated fairly or being given a positive work environment. After researching this issue, it seems that Bustle is willing to work with the employees and make some changes to the company where both sides can be happy. The next step would be for the employees to meet with management so that both sides can hash out their issues and say what they are looking for or what they want. Once they do this, they can begin working together to create a better work environment where management is happy with the company’s success and the employees can enjoy doing their job more. Getting a union involved does not seem that it would be necessary since they can’t really do anything but help negotiate but it is clear that Bustle is already open to discussing and addressing these issues.

            A new mission statement for the company could be “Our mission is to create original and creative content to represent those that are underrepresented to provide content that will make people think hard and push for change. And to provide the best possible workplace for our employees and the best content for our customers and clients.” This mission statement differs from the current one in one major way. This new mission statement includes the important factor of providing the best possible workplace for employees. By including this, Bustle is making it clear that they do care about their employees and that their happiness is important to them, while still letting their clients know that they are important too. 

Having core values is extremely important for a business as it shows the world what you pride yourself on with the work your business is doing. One core value for Bustle should be honesty. This is extremely important in their line of work because when people look to the media, they want the truth they don’t want to be lied to. It is also important from an employee standpoint because they want an employer that is going to be honest with them. Another core value for Bustle should be Creativity. Creativity is extremely important in the media industry. People want to read stories that will grab their attention and draw them in which is why creativity is so important. They don’t want to publish work that nobody is interested in, otherwise nobody will read their publications and they won’t make any money. Creativity also provides a sense of originality which is important in journalism and media. A third core value should be customer/client satisfaction. The importance behind this value is obvious. If clients and customers aren’t satisfied then they will find another media source that they will be satisfied with. Finally, a fourth core value that Bustle should have is employee satisfaction. This is also extremely important because if employees are not satisfied with the work environment or the work that they are doing then they may go find another place to work. This would only create issues for Bustle because with no employees they can’t make money. These are some core values that Bustle should have.

Ensuring ethical productivity and monitoring ethics is extremely important in a business. The best way for Bustle to do this to prevent issues like this one happening again in the future would be for management to sit down with all of their employees one on one and discuss how they can work together to ensure that everyone is happy and that the actions of both upper management and lower level employees are ethical. As well as monitoring what they publish to ensure that they only publish work that is ethical and satisfying to clients and customers.

Even with the controversy surrounding this issue, hiring or firing any employees wouldn’t really help with the situation or help them anymore after the controversy has passed. The best thing they can do is work with the employees, taking their ideas into account and doing whatever they can do to improve the workplace.

When it comes to Bustle’s marketing strategies, there isn't really anything they need to remarket. The best thing that they can do is to market themselves as a company that appreciates and cares for its employees. This would be beneficial to the company right now because they have received some negative criticism because of the situation and it would help them to get back on track.

This plan will help to promote business profits and productivity because if the company works with the employees to provide them with a better work environment and working conditions then they will be happier and more likely to want to work harder. With employees working harder the productivity of the company will increase which can lead to increase in profits. This plan conforms to the mission because it will create that more positive and beneficial workplace for the employees. It conforms to the core values because employees and customers will be satisfied because employees will be able to put out original, honest, and creative content. In the long run it will ensure good ethics because employees will be happy in their workplace and working hard to develop great content that clients and customers will be happy with leading to larger profits and happiness for the company as a whole. 


“Bustle Digital Group Unionizes with the Writers Guild of America, East: Press Room.” Writers Guild of America, East, 26 Oct. 2020,

Cussen, Mark P. “Most Successful Unions.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 28 Aug. 2020,

Flynn, Kerry. “Bustle Digital Group Staffers Announce Intention to Unionize.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Oct. 2020,  

Fulmer, William E. “Step by Step Through a Union Campaign.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2014,    

Hopkins, Kathryn. “Bustle Digital Group Staffers to Form Union.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 19 Oct. 2020,   

“What Are the Benefits of Being a Union Worker?” UWUA, 18 Nov. 2017, 



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