The year is only half over, but it’s not too soon to pick 2019’s Most Tone Deaf Bosses: Wayfair cofounders Steve Conine and Niraj Shah.
They’ve earned the ignominious distinction for putting profits over people at a time when we need leaders to do more than toe the company line.
Last Friday, more than 500 employees of the Boston-based online furniture and housewares retailer pleaded with Conine and Shah to cancel a $200,000 order of bedroom furniture for a Texas border camp that is “home” to migrant children. Conditions at camps run by that government contractor have been known to be horrendous.
The employees delivered their bottom line in a letter to Wayfair leadership: It’s morally wrong for the federal government to detain and mistreat hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum, and Wayfair should have “no part in enabling, supporting, or profiting from this practice.”
Conine and Shah thought about it over the weekend and responded with a corporate memo that oozed all the empathy of an automated apology e-mail for a missed delivery or a scratch on a coffee table:
“As a retailer, it is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate,” according to a memo signed by “The Leadership Team.”
“We believe all of our stakeholders, employees, customers, investors and suppliers included, are best served by our commitment to fulfill all orders.”
It’s as if Conine and Shah worried that if Wayfair didn’t provide beds, no one would, and it would be better for kids to sleep on beds than on the floor.
I get how a company shouldn’t mix business with politics. In a town hall with employees on Tuesday, Conine explained that he personally objected to detention centers and mentioned that Shah was raised in a first-generation immigrant family. Refusing a customer order over the US migrant policy would be treading on a “slippery slope,” Conine said.
Here’s the problem: If Wayfair’s leaders truly believe this is wrong – and clearly, many of their employees do – they have an opportunity to say something, do something.
No laws may have been broken by the Trump administration, but that doesn’t mean what’s happening is right. Separating families at the border is wrong. Keeping migrant kids underfed and unwashed in crowded conditions is wrong.
Here’s what immigration attorney Elora Mukherjee told The Atlantic after a recent visit to a detention camp: “I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”
This is what the Wayfair brand wants to be associated with?
Not for Wayfair workers, and that’s why it was heartening to see hundreds stream out of their Back Bay headquarters on Wednesday at 1:30 pm and gather nearby in Copley Square to protest the company profiting off of cruel and unusual treatment of migrant kids. Workers marched with signs that read: “A prison with a bed is still a prison,” “A cage is not a home,” and “Solidarity with migrant families.”
When these workers walked out, they seized on something their tone-deaf bosses could not: There’s power that comes from working at a $13.2 billion public company with more than 14,000 employees.
Use it, or lose it.
These workers chose to use their clout to change minds and abhorrent government policy. Their demands are reasonable, and they still hold out hope that their bosses will create a code of business ethics for customers, donate profits from the government camp contract, or even stop doing business with migrant camps.
“We have seen them do the right thing before,” said Wayfair engineer Tom Brown, 33, as he stood in Copley Square.
At this moment in our country’s history, we need leaders to stand up for what they know is right in their hearts, not what they’ve learned in business school.