April 22, 2015

What Can HR Do About the Drug Culture in Silicon Valley?

PotA key underlying trend in Silicon Valley workplaces — one not usually displayed on the glossy front pages of industry magazines — is the drug culture that permeates the ecosystem. According to an article on Inc., today’s tech entrepreneurs and coders are using legal “brain enhancing” drugs with the goal of optimizing their bodies and minds to work 90-hour weeks. Known as nootropics, these drugs are not proven to work, but they are becoming very popular.

HR departments in Silicon Valley should be aware of this trend — after all, legal and illegal drugs may be making their ways into employees’ systems while they are in the office.

Nootropics are considered part of a biohacking movement which sees employees using certain foods and legal supplements to maximize their productivity. In many ways, this is no different from the nutrition and supplement programs that athletes all over the world use to legally enhance their performances. The real issue is that, even though many of these nootropics are legal, they are being used to fuel a workaholic lifestyle in Silicon Valley startups.

Even though the use and abuse of nootropics may be linked to workaholism and burnout, HR departments are unlikely to find much support for an anti-workaholic stance: as this article from Network World shows, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, Marissa Mayer, Mark Zuckerberg, and their armies of coders all believe that obsession is the mother of invention. The message to modern IT professionals is clear: long hours of sustained grind spark innovation and drive competitive advantage.

Where does this leave HR? I think the department’s hands are pretty much tied when it comes to intervening on nootropic usage. Nootropics are just about legal, and even if employees are abusing nootropics, such abuse is intrinsically linked to the obsessive workaholic culture on which the global software movement was built. The lonely HR officer trying to combat workaholism in this culture would be like King Canute trying to hold back the waves.

This means that HR’s role is probably limited to dealing with the fallout — and that will come. Overworked and overstressed workers may need to play even harder, and it should therefore come as no surprise that many Silicon Valley employees have begun to turn to illicit drugs (heroine, cocaine, black market stimulants, marijuana, etc.).

HR may not be able to control workaholism and the use of nootropics, but it can influence employees through education initiatives that offer more sustainable ways to boost performance: getting enough sleep, good dietary habits, regular exercise, listening to music while coding, etc.

When it comes to illicit drug usage, HR can and should have more influence and control. One way to discourage a drug culture in the workplace may be instituting a drug-testing policy. Such a policy would probably be controversial, but this is one way you can be sure that your enterprise is being fueled by passion — not controlled substances.

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Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.