Netflix CEO Reed Hastings didn’t want to know. While his employees demanded that their boss be the last show (the closest) to comedian Dave Chappelle of the streaming service Due to the “transphobic” nature of the jokes, Hastings has firmly defended the right to free speech.
“We will continue to work with Dave Chappelle. Hastings said in an internal conversation that was leaked via New York times. “In stand-up comedy, comedians say all kinds of silly things to effect. Some like this art form, some don’t.”
On Wednesday, some employees of Netflix in its California headquarters will stop working in an attempt to change the mind of their CEO. Employee anger boiled over in recent days after Netflix decided to fire one of the protest organizers for “leaking trade secrets”. The woman briefed Bloomberg on the costs incurred by Netflix to broadcast Chappelle: $24.1 million (€20.9 million).
It’s the rule, not the exception, for tech workers to stop working because of a sensitive issue. Almost all major US tech companies have had to deal with “pullouts” in recent years, in which employees are temporarily out of work.
For example, employees demanded plans from their executives to combat climate change (Amazon and Microsoft), a tougher action against right-wing extremism (Facebook) and a tougher approach to sexual misconduct (Activision Blizzard). The employees also demanded that the employer rescind the contracts it had with the US Department of Defense (Google) or the US Immigration Service (Salesforce).
Also read this article about Netflix promotions: Unrest grows within Netflix over ‘transphobic’ jokes by comedian Dave Chappelle
Where does all this desire to work come from?
In the United States, technology companies have traditionally been among the worst organized sectors of workers. Often there are no trade unions: employees show little interest and employers try to discourage their formation. Also in the Netherlands, employees of technology companies, who are often expatriates or seconded with little or no employer ties, are generally not union members.
According to FNV director Bob Bolte, tech employees are traditionally a “difficult group to organize,” he said. “Weird kind of people, somewhat self-centered. The culture within tech companies is: If you want a raise, you have to switch to another employer instead of fighting for it as a group.”
If there is any action at all to improve working conditions and increase wages, it will be in technology companies that employ a lot of non-computer workers. Think Amazon warehouse workers, Uber taxi drivers, and Gorillas bike couriers.
Exiting employees from companies like Netflix, Facebook or Google has an entirely different purpose. Union official Bob Bolt explains that this is a way for employees to pressure the top to take positions on important social issues such as racism and climate change. He sees them as “attempts by a new generation of workers who want to change their companies for a better world.”
The procedures create a dilemma for corporate managers. On the one hand, they feel compelled to accommodate the protesting workplace. These actions are often led by the best talent who are progressive and technically trained, who have the choice of employers and who take social engagement into account when choosing a job.
At the same time, how far should a company go in taking political or social positions? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said he didn’t want to keep up, because the core of Netflix’s strategy isn’t about a better world, it’s about “our subscribers’ enjoyment.”
Practice shows that senior executives are indeed sensitive to actions. For example, Jeff Bezos, then-CEO of Amazon, stuck to the “climate promise” after his employees campaigned for a greener policy. Google tore up its contract with the Department of Defense for Project Maven after employee protests, under which Google will help make assault weapons accurate. American Steve Son has stepped down from the board of directors of American-Dutch Booking.com under pressure after employees complained about his social media posts sympathizing with supporters of President Trump.
Software company Basecamp has proven that things can go very differently. There, CEO Jason Freed was so tired of all his employees’ political controversy that he made a drastic decision in April of this year. Ban any political discussion in the workplace. “We don’t need to solve deep social problems. We make software. That is more than enough for us.”
Result: Basecamp was empty. A third of employees quit and switched to another tech company. A week later, Fried apologized. “We have a lot to learn and a lot to think about. We’re sorry.”
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of October 19, 2021
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