People making demands of a company to act differently isn’t a new story. However, the nature of what they’re asking for is shifting.
In a Bloomberg article sent to me by Nancy Hellmrich (@getnance), people working for furniture maker Wayfair had walked off the job because their company is doing business with Mexico border detention camp contractors.
“…Scores of employees at Wayfair Inc. walked off the job on Wednesday to protest the online retailer’s sale of beds to contractors furnishing border camps for asylum seekers.”
Across the stakeholder landscape, there are changing expectations for how an organisation should act. It’s easy to label it as ‘politicising’, but there is something deeper going on.
People are seeking to define themselves through where they work and what they buy – it’s part of their expression of identity. So if I feel out of sync in either of those things, a desire to lash out is almost inevitable. Especially if it rubs up against something I thought we both cared about.
The Wayfair case was at the extreme end of the spectrum, with workers walking out and literally using their bodies to make their point. But when we feel wronged, the desire to exact some kind of punishment also plays out in more micro ways. When people quietly switch where they buy from or work. Tell a friend and use their influence about something that bothers them. Sign a petition, share a meme or comment on social media.
And whatever your beef, rallying those troops has never been easier. Whether using internal or external platforms, social networks are catnip to outrage. Barely a week goes by without an organisation outed for some perceived or real transgression, caught in the cross-fire of what they do and how they do it.
It’s a hair-trigger environment where intentions aside, they are damned if they do and if they don’t. In the Wayfair case, the beds were for kids in detention camps. So is it better for the kids to sleep on the ground so the employees can take a stand and then go home to sleep in their beds? I doubt that question was part of their thinking.
The company ended up making a donation of the profits from the sale to the Red Cross, so take and give, and kids get to sleep on beds. Setting aside cases of outright fraud, these kind of situations are nearly always accompanied by complex circumstances with no easy answer.
I don’t pretend to have the answer. Experience and observation suggest you have a better chance of avoiding the minefield of outrage if you make promises you can keep and keep them. That requires a considered and vigorous practice of promising where you think through “what could possibly go wrong”, not as an ironic aside, but as a serious question.
Wayfair could have looked past the dollar signs of a government contract and spent more than a nano-second examining the potential downside of the promise they were making. They could have focused on the existing promise to their workers about the kind of company they wanted to be. They didn’t, but you should.