The Astros, Psychological Safety, and MLB Front Office Culture

The Astros sign-stealing scandal may not have been unearthed if not for whistleblowers. (via Keith Allison)

In the MLB Commissioner’s report on the sign-stealing scandal, Rob Manfred stated, “the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.” Even before the report was issued, the culture within the Astros organization had been a matter of public debate and speculation: The trade for Roberto Osuna, Brandon Taubman’s outburst regarding said trade, and the sign-stealing scandal itself all raised questions about the health of the culture within the Astros front office.

But without the reporting of Stephanie Apstein, Taubman’s comments would have stayed behind closed doors; without Mike Fiers’ comments to journalists, the sign-stealing scheme may have been relegated to whispers. Although players were granted amnesty in the MLB investigation, no one else has stepped forward. With the investigation allegedly complete, Fiers remains the only person who took ownership of his comments and his role as whistleblower.

It’s clear Fiers was not the only player privy to the banging scheme. But of the 68 witnesses interviewed in the investigation, only 23 were current or former players, which suggests a significant number of Astros employees were interviewed. While immunity was conferred to baseball players through negotiations with MLBPA, it is not clear if other organizational employees were granted the same leeway in speaking openly without repercussions. Non-uniformed employees might also be at risk, as the March 2018 memorandum prohibiting the use of electronic equipment to steal signs specifically notes that clubs, and club employees, can be subject to disciplinary action. 

The report notes the involvement of the video replay review room, and one would assume video scouts and other equipment operators – the people running cameras and collecting information, processing said information, and delivering information to players, coaches, and other staff – were part of the investigation. We know they participated in the scheme to some extent, as the report states the attempt to decode signs was “executed by lower-level baseball operations employees working in conjunction with Astros players.” We don’t know if they made an intellectual contribution to the scheme or if they simply did their jobs as instructed.

Even in a hypothetical situation based on the unsubstantiated rumors of the use of wearable devices in the current sign-stealing scandal, it stands to reason that other personnel in the dugout or clubhouse would have observed wearables being used in this manner. For example, an athletic trainer may have observed something amiss – either additional technology or unauthorized modifications made to existing, approved wearables – while not being a party to the scheme itself.

Like the “lower-level baseball operations employees” in the report, these athletic trainers also would be interviewed in an investigation, and one would question their knowledge and involvement in a scandal involving wearable devices. The involvement of these lower-level employees is worth consideration in view of the additional information that may come to light, as well as in preparation for future scandals — which seem all but certain to occur absent explicit regulations to curb malfeasance.

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The role of mid- to lower-level employees in the banging scheme is an opportunity for fans to place themselves in an analogous scenario, wherein they might be asked to compromise their personal morals. Most sports fans have strong opinions as to whether or not they would take a performance-enhancing drug as an athlete. But would you engage in dubious behaviors like using electronics to facilitate sign-stealing if you were a mid- to lower-level employee in an MLB organization? Your superiors – perhaps your direct superior, or someone several pay grades above yours – are pressuring the organization into compliance with a not-so-ethical proposition. You could be contributing to or knowingly participating in the scheme – or you could be entirely unaware of the machinations of your superiors, an innocent bystander.

If you are aware and troubled by the plan, you might choose to be a whistleblower, and you might voice your opinion – and the repercussions could involve termination of employment. If you have the financial wherewithal or other job prospects, you may be inclined to take this risk – or to simply quit. Perhaps the ongoing scandal isn’t one worth risking your future career, in which case you may simply decide this culture isn’t for you and seek employment elsewhere. 

For most employees, particularly those who are employees at will and not on a contract, this is a possible course of action. But this isn’t just any employer, this is MLB, and there are unusual scenarios whenever the real world collides with baseball. Baseball loves unwritten rules, and the conditions of employment are also subject to certain unwritten rules. 

One unwritten rule, a particular quirk of employment with an MLB organization, was illustrated in Evan Drellich’s story on the Astros culture in the wake of Brandon Taubman’s comments. “Luhnow has not always informed employees under contract when other teams have called with better opportunities, a norm inside the sport, though with some exceptions. Those opportunities can be precious for employees.” While Drellich’s story pertains directly to the Astros organization and the Astros culture, anonymous sources have indicated this procedure may also be present in other organizations. 

First, let’s examine how employees may move from one organization to another. When an MLB organization is interested in hiring a person who works for a different MLB organization, they must contact the other organization for permission to speak with and interview the person of interest. Most of us are familiar with this because we hear about this at the higher levels – say, a team interested in interviewing a bench coach for a managerial position, or interviewing a special assistant for a general manager role – but this process seems to occur at all levels. (There’s a little leeway with interns, as their roles are typically seasonal.) 

If the team grants permission for an interview, someone from the team will contact the employee of interest. Again, place yourselves in the shoes of an MLB employee. Imagine if your supervisor – or perhaps your supervisor’s supervisor – approaches you to say a competitor is interested in interviewing you for a job. Even if you have a relatively positive relationship with your supervisor and your employer, it’s a bit awkward to let your current employer know that, yes, you would be very interested in a position elsewhere. And an interview is no guarantee of a job offer. One might interview only to go right back to the same boss to whom you expressed a desire to pursue other employment.

It’s not difficult to envision a scenario wherein these calls, whether or not they lead to a new position with a different organization, could result in some bad blood and ill will going forward. One employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, might share a story wherein an employee was granted permission to interview with another organization – but only after bullying and verbal threats of firing said employee if he interviewed with the other team. These threats and negative feelings most certainly could impact an employee’s contract renewal, which can occur on an annual or bi-annual basis.

An Angell at Spring Training
For decades, Roger Angell's writing has warmed us to the romance of the new season.

It is understandable if an employee has a legally binding contract with an MLB organization, they may not be granted freedom to speak with another MLB organization about possible employment. However, MLB employees who are not on a contract still would be subject to the same requirements as contracted employees: An MLB organization needs to ask for permission before interviewing an employee of a rival organization. These employees at will can’t freely apply for positions with other MLB organizations or the Commissioner’s Office. In other words, even if an employee is an employee at will and can quit or be terminated without cause at any time, they still can’t apply for a job with another team, and other teams can’t contact them directly. The other team still has to contact an employee’s current employer for permission to interview. 

As noted by Drellich, though, there is no requirement that the employer inform the employee a competitor is interested in them. And even though they are at-will, and could be fired at any time, they are not allowed to inquire about other positions or even speak to employees of other organizations about open positions. An employee who is allegedly at-will could go years without being able to apply for a position with another team while also working for years without knowing if other organizations are even interested in speaking with them about a potential new role. 

All this is to say that if you’re dissatisfied with your job as an MLB employee – whether due to work culture or the role itself – the procedure by which you would seek employment with another organization is not typical of the average employee at will. This makes it significantly more difficult for employees who wants to extricate themselves from a toxic workplace culture while remaining in the field. Bear in mind this toxic culture has implications far beyond a relatively simple cheating scandal. Again, quoting Drellich. 

One ex-Astros employee spoke of emotional devastation immediately following the trade for Osuna, both for themselves and for others inside the organization. For the message sent to the team’s own employees — and specifically women — about domestic violence.”

The employee saw no significant resources allocated to dealing with internal concerns, no meaningful action addressing the impact on others inside Minute Maid Park who had to newly reckon with the core values of their workplace. All the employee saw was a come-as-it-may approach to fallout.

This is a devastating feeling for a victim of domestic violence to sit with in the workplace, and there are implications for the culture as it pertains to women in the workforce. If the Astros not only can’t take a stand against such an egregious example of domestic assault, but instead welcome the perpetrator into the fold, one questions what their response would be to an internal allegation of sexual harassment. One would hope there would be reporting mechanisms in place, but as these are often ineffective, someone who is experiencing harassment, bullying, or discrimination may prefer to simply leave. 

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Setting aside the truly egregious offenses of the Astros, there’s a broader issue at play. It’s detrimental for both employers and employees to foster a workplace culture that doesn’t provide a comfortable environment for reporting discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment, because this same culture may not provide a comfortable environment for open dissent and discussion of new ideas. An employee may not feel comfortable in sharing novel ideas with their colleagues and superiors for fear of bullying and hostility. 

The concept of psychological safety has long been applied to examine how best to foster a workplace that encourages dissemination and exchange of ideas. Amy Edmondson spearheaded the concept of psychological safety in organizations in a 1999 article, while expanding the theory in numerous books. From her original study

…those in a position to initiate learning behavior may believe they are placing themselves at risk; for example, by admitting an error or asking for help, an individual may appear incompetent and thus suffer a blow to his or her image. In addition, such individuals may incur more tangible costs if their actions create unfavorable impressions on people who influence decisions about promotions, raises, or project assignments.” 

A workplace that provides psychological safety to its employees is a workplace culture that is built upon trust and respect, both in terms of professional and intellectual respect as well as respect for, and caring of, others as humans. This isn’t to say everyone needs to get along and be friends, but instead, there is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members.” A workplace with a psychologically safe culture will allow employees to voice opinions and share ideas that are out of the mainstream and may go against what has always been done. Not every idea will be implemented, but providing a safe environment for this exchange allows for truly groundbreaking, outside-the-box thinking.

The strength of a psychologically safe work environment is in providing a culture that welcomes respectful dissent and open discussion of new ideas while also acknowledging mistakes and falibilities. A culture that allows for discussion of potentially innovative ideas is also a culture that welcomes candor and thoughtful criticism. Creating this environment starts with confident leadership: “Leaders have to show that they know that they’re fallible human beings.” Being open to differing opinions and critical feedback not only provides a competitive advantage in terms of performance, it can mitigate potentially dangerous situations

In an ideal world, we don’t want yes-men who will merely keep the game afloat in its current incarnation; we’d like to see the game advance and remain innovative. Playing it safe and not taking risks is a good way to remain invisible and undetected by upper management. It’s also a good way to ensure the game is stagnant. A fearful employee may be more risk-averse, in order to avoid termination on the off chance of a poorly received idea. An employee who has guaranteed employment – or the opportunity to freely pursue employment elsewhere – may be more willing to introduce new ideas and take risks, knowing their job or income is safe. 

There is no denying an organization’s intellectual property and trade secrets are valuable. But the benefits to the game as a whole would be immense, as allowing employees to move freely between organizations would promote innovation and idea-sharing. Teams might even be placed in a situation in which they are competing for top talent. Individuals who feel their ideas are not valued at one organization may find a more receptive audience elsewhere where their talents can reach their full potential. The baseball community has accepted the “change of scenery” rationale as sufficient reason to move players between organizations. It stands to reason front office staff, being human beings themselves, also may benefit from a change of scenery and a change of workplace culture. 

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Since the Moneyball era, we’ve seen MLB organizations are increasingly seeking out people with advanced degrees and significant experience outside baseball. One can question whether or not hiring people from these backgrounds benefits the game overall. However, it isn’t enough to seek out highly motivated, talented individuals and hire them only to silo them into a single organization. Ambitious people are going to want a sense of progression, a recognition their work matters. And a good manager will provide them the opportunity to grow, develop, and advance – whether that’s within the organization or within baseball more broadly.

It’s shortsighted at best to hire incredibly intelligent, motivated, driven individuals without also providing opportunities for growth, whether that is within your organization or within your industry more generally. In an ideal world, all good, hardworking, intelligent workers will climb ladders and never face a ceiling. It’s better for the personal development of employees, it’s a tribute to a manager’s skills in developing employees, and it’s better for the progression of the industry.

But again, this is baseball, which plays by its own rules. And those rules indicate employees can’t move freely, whether it’s to evade a toxic workplace or simply to implement their ideas elsewhere. MLB employees are not free to apply and interview for positions with other MLB organizations, whether or not they are bound by a contract. The current method of requiring that a competitor contact an employer to ask specifically about a particular employee has implications for baseball’s diversity issues. Names are recommended through networks, leaving those outside established networks at a disadvantage. And when hiring in this insular industry is so dependent upon networking, a person who wishes to remain gainfully employed by an MLB organization will do their level best to ensure no boats are rocked. 

It’s time for Major League Baseball, and the organizations contained therein, to recognize their role as innovators of sport and not just baseball. If baseball truly wants to produce an innovative product on the field, it will forgo the antiquated procedure of asking all employees to await an invitation from another organization to interview. Not only will this provide employees with the opportunity to move to an organization that might be more receptive to their ideas, it recognizes employees as humans seeking out a workplace culture aligned with their own personal attributes. 

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All that said, the mess surrounding the Astros is exemplary of the many needed changes in MLB front-office culture. It’s one thing to consider this in terms of a cheating scandal ingrained into the dugout, perpetuated by and permeating through the front office. But it wasn’t all that long ago Astros employees also had to contend with the ethical quandary of trading for a player who was serving a suspension for domestic violence. It’s one thing to say the Osuna trade was an aberration; there’s reason to suspect it was another symptom of a workplace culture that is dismissive of domestic violence, with the unprofessional behavior and callous comments of Brandon Taubman serving as another symptom.

It’s not unreasonable that some introspective employees may have questioned their complicity in allowing, if not participating or creating, a workplace culture that would allow domestic violence to be so readily dismissed, if not mocked. Who knows how many other dismissive comments were not met with resistance? But we’ll give most Astros employees the benefit of the doubt. One does not need to have personally experienced domestic assault to be empathetic, and even if one is not a victim or does not personally know a victim (which is highly unlikely), one would hope a reasonable human being would recognize that acts of violence against another human being are wrong. 

Looking at the workplace culture within the Astros organization demonstrates there is a pressing need for improved psychological safety within the work culture in Houston, if not an overhaul of the entire hiring process. Even absent such egregious behaviors demonstrated by the Astros, there is a moral imperative to improve the workplace culture throughout MLB so all employees, from training staff to front-office employees, feel comfortable exchanging information – whether it’s a new idea to better the team or unsavory activities – without fearing for the loss of employment. 

Baseball fans and writers alike love to talk about team chemistry. We love to see smiles in the dugout, watch videos of celebratory dances and hugs, and read stories of camaraderie between players. It’s nice to think these are signs of a happy workplace. But a smiling workplace full of employees who are generally compliant without rocking the boat is generally not an innovative workplace. A workforce that comprises leaders surrounded by yes men will not be disruptive – and that’s a bad thing.

Indeed, we need a bit of conflict from people who will challenge the tried-and-true, the established, unspoken rules. Transparency and allowing employees at will to actually move about at will can help with innovation and diversity. Requiring an employee to wait until a team calls to request an interview, and not allowing said employee to take initiative on their own to drive their own career forward, simply reinforces the notion of clubability and like hiring like, wherein toxicity is either reinforced or metastasizes to other clubs.

Revisiting the current unwritten rules of hiring and movement between organizations would be a gentle way of allowing a new, less-toxic status quo to establish itself. But there may be a simpler answer that could be implemented more readily: If a team can’t create a psychologically safe environment in which differing opinions can be welcomed, the Commissioner’s Office at least could create a reporting system by which someone can report their observations anonymously.

Given the ongoing issues wherein the Astros actively prevent journalists from interacting with players and limit their exposure to the clubhouse, we have to wonder what other scandalous – if not illegal – activities may be concealed. That said, there may be unscrupulous activities taking place beyond places where a beat writer would have regular access. Fiers’ name will forever be linked as the whistleblower in the sign-stealing scandal, but other scandalous stories have broken as a result of other whistleblowers.

Consider the actions of Gabe Kapler with the Dodgers when faced with allegations of sexual assault by a minor league player; this most likely would not have come to light without the disclosure of Nick Francona, who now no longer works in baseball. Employees should be provided with whistleblower protection — or at the very least a place where they could provide an anonymous report — in order to curb these activities. 

Whistleblowers are not kindly regarded, and whistleblowing often is regarded as a last resort. But without that element of psychological safety, an employee may not be willing to report unseemly or downright corrupt behavior to a superior within the organization. There should be an independent third party to which team employees – be they uniformed personnel or front-office staff – can report infractions anonymously. This could be of benefit in recognizing and halting a cheating scheme before it becomes a scandal, but an anonymous tip line also may provide a resource for employees to report incidents and observations of sexual harassment, domestic violence, drug abuse, or worse.

There are multiple layers to the concept of the toxic workplace as it exists in professional baseball organizations. At best, an unpleasant work environment in an MLB organization serves as a hindrance to productivity and innovation. But beneath that, the toxicity detailed in numerous reports demonstrates an environment in which employees may be fearful of reporting illegal or dangerous activity. The Astros may be the most egregious example of the latter, but other organizations would be wise to take note of whether or not they foster a culture that is open to dissent, or at the very least, open to reports of malfeasance, harassment, and illegal activities. 

For many, a job in baseball is a dream, an ideal to which they can aspire. But in reality, a job in baseball is just that – a job. No one should be expected to compromise their morals in order to maintain employment or a career. Organizations owe it to their employees to provide a work culture that enables and challenges everyone to be at their best, whether that’s in terms of sheer work performance or ethical behavior. 

References & Resources


Stephanie Springer is an organic chemist turned patent examiner. Follow her on Twitter @stephaniekays.
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JustinPBG
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Member
JustinPBG

This is great, and depressingly relevant for my own workplace right now, thanks.

Erick
Member
Erick

It’s a great article Stephanie. I recently went through a Human Resources training, and some of the stuff that is not okay legally happens all the time, not only in my current workplace, but in some of my previous workplaces as well. I think there are certainly other aspects that apply to MLB as well (some of the training I went through really showed some normal situations with some heavy underlying bias towards minorities and women, which baseball also has a problem with). Even stuff as simple as a supervisor getting upset when two Spanish-speaking co-workers discuss something in Spanish…there… Read more »

Antonio Bananas
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Member
Antonio Bananas

Who would have thought a team owned by a guy who made a fortune in energy, would be operated in such a Machiavellian way…

The Guru
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The Guru

Manfred should resign over this scandal. He knew about it and did nothing until fiers became a whistle blower. Really sad how much Manfred hurt the integrity of the game.

bobo321
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bobo321

Fiers has the advantage of having signed his last big contract. Most people don’t.

SteveSherman161
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Member
SteveSherman161

All of this is correct, of course, but the strongest indication that something was foul in the Astros’ corporate culture was the attempt to tar the reputation of Stephanie Apstein after she reported the Taubman outburst. So far as I know, the initiator of that disgraceful lie has never been identified.