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Matt Haney’s ‘right to disconnect’ bill is bad for business and a death knell for startups

‘You can’t legislate good management.’ Assemblymember Haney’s ‘right to disconnect’ bill would stifle startup culture, argues CEO Joshua March

A person is using a tablet at a table with a drink, near a window with a cityscape at dusk.
AI illustration by Clark Miller.

By Joshua March

Everyone needs time to wind down and disconnect to be their best self. I’m the CEO of a Silicon Valley tech startup, and even I set my phone to “do not disturb” after 9 p.m. most days as I’m winding down for bed. I try to schedule at least one weekend day that is free of work.

But sometimes there are tight deadlines, and startups need to do whatever it takes to win. If that means you need to get on a red-eye flight to get to an important pitch meeting, you do it. If you need to spend all weekend reworking a deck for an important Monday morning meeting, tending to lab experiments or coding for a product launch, you do it. This kind of dedication is necessary to succeed. 

AB 2751 by state Assemblymember Matt Haney would make this kind of flexibility illegal. If your manager sends you a message outside prescribed working hours, unless it’s an “emergency,” you would be able to complain to the California Labor Commissioner’s Office and possibly get a fine levied against your company. If an employee disagrees with a manager about what constitutes an “emergency,” presumably the Labor Commission will decide. This seems like a huge overreach and imposition on the ability of companies to manage their communications.

I don’t doubt that there are people whose 9-5 jobs became more 24-7 during the pandemic and that many workers would benefit from more specific agreements with their managers about communication expectations—that’s best practice, and we should encourage companies to do this (which is different from trying to legislate it). 

It’s least necessary, however, for those most likely to be affected by after-hours Slack and email messages: Highly paid tech workers who enjoy highly flexible work schedules and are notorious for switching jobs because they’re in such high demand. Having the freedom to make trade-offs and work on hard challenges is what attracts employees to startups in the first place, and they are the ones best positioned to make decisions about how to balance company goals with employee needs—not politicians.

If this bill was approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, it would just push the most ambitious and hard-working people to start companies elsewhere at a time when California has the highest unemployment rate of any state and is facing a huge budget deficit. If we look at the countries that have pioneered “right to disconnect” bills, we find France, Italy and Spain—not exactly the hotbeds of startup innovation. There’s a reason why many of the most ambitious and talented people from those countries move to Silicon Valley, and it’s not to disconnect. 

That is why a draconian version of the bill would never pass, so Haney watered it down to say: “This bill would require a public or private employer to establish a workplace policy that provides employees the right to disconnect from communications from the employer during nonworking hours, except as specified” (emphasis added). 

What this means in practice is that companies will spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to establish a policy in their employee handbook that lists every possible situation where a manager may message their team members outside normal working hours, including the manager's discretion. 

New employees will skim through the handbook when they start a job, sign and promptly forget it, and managers will probably never even read it. Occasionally, a disgruntled employee will decide to complain to the state, which, if it decides that there’s a “pattern of violation” will fine the company $100, presumably after many hours of review that will probably cost taxpayers significantly more than the fine. The end result will be no actual change in people's lives, just more red tape, more bureaucracy and more busy work. 

The reality is that startups are hard work, but many people CHOOSE to do that hard work because they welcome the challenge of building something great, having a big impact and enjoying more agency than if they worked at a big company (and of course, the huge potential financial upside). The best managers are already cognizant of the work and stress their team is under and already have good practices for after-hours communications.

For sure, there are bad managers out there who send unnecessary messages at all hours and who expect their team to jump to respond, even when it just isn’t time-sensitive. A $100 fine or a written policy won’t change this—you can’t legislate good management. Ultimately managers or companies that operate like that will lose their top performers and will perform worse. That’s the benefit of a free market. 

I’m all for encouraging good management and times of disconnection, but adding pointless bureaucracy will not achieve that goal.

Joshua March is the co-founder and CEO of SCiFi Foods, a Bay Area-based cultivated meat company. He was previously the co-founder and CEO of Conversocial. Find him on X at @joshuamarch.

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