Employees of Wayfair, the online furniture giant based in the Back Bay, weren’t planning to stage a walkout on Wednesday. But when the company’s leadership shrugged off workers’ objections to fulfilling a $200,000 furniture order for detention centers on the US-Mexico border, “Wayfairians” became the latest group of tech co-workers to start a social activist movement targeting their own employer.
It happened at warp speed: One employee shared an image of the executives’ letter with a friend, who posted it on a political message board. Brad Mills, a 33-year-old medical student in East Tennessee with no connection to the company, spotted the post and banged out an expletive-spiked tweet while en route to Alabama for a beach vacation.
“I know I only have like 12 followers but look at this . . .” Mills wrote. “@Wayfair is supplying the concentration camps and their employees are pissed about it.”
The tweet spread virally online and caught Wayfair employees by surprise. They didn’t set out to become activists, but once they grasped the possibility of the moment, they had other social movements to look to as models. Employees at other big tech firms had helped created a playbook that turns diffuse pockets of dissent into an organized force that reaches the executive offices or the public in a hurry — and that is easily copied.
Using a channel on Wayfair’s Slack internal messaging platform, employees came together quickly. Within two hours, an @Wayfairwalkout Twitter account was sending out missives outlining the activists’ demands. A Facebook page with details on the planned protest cropped up. Employees conferred with activists at Google who had organized walkouts.
As the story ricocheted around the Web, they found quick support from organized labor, activists working with local immigrant and refugee rights groups, and organizations that have helped start consumer boycotts. Just over 500 employees — about one-10th of Wayfair staff in Boston — signed the petition that prompted the walkout. And in little more than 24 hours, they convened in Copley Plaza for a protest rally attended by hundreds and covered around the globe.
Employee activism used to center around typical labor issues such as overtime or compensation. But increasingly, tech employees like those at Wayfair are stepping up and pushing their employers to stands on political affairs.
Employees at Google and Microsoft have circulated petitions, workers in the country’s tech hubs have staged walkouts, while others have written Medium posts that have gone viral questioning the moral implications of a company’s business actions. Executives are being forced to wrangle with difficult ethical questions publicly, and some have attempted to implement socially aware policies to quell employee concerns and anticipate potential hot-button issues before trouble arises.
“We are in the era of the employee activist,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, who has been studying the upsurge of employee activism throughout the United States.
Gaines-Ross’s findings show that 38 percent of American workers have spoken up to support or criticize their employer’s actions on a range of issues, such as same-sex marriage, discrimination, sexual harassment, climate change, gender equality, pay equity, and internal business policies. And more than 80 percent of millennials believe they have a right to speak out against their employers.
Workers often personally identify with their employer and its values, they want to work for companies they believe in, Gaines-Ross said. “The balance between ‘This is my work life’ and ‘This is my personal life’ has totally blurred. Employees spend a lot of time together in the workforce, and they want to come together. . . . There is this perception that they can make a difference.”
More than 20,000 Google staffers staged a walkout last November to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims. That came in the wake of employee petitions that protested Google’s Pentagon contracts and work on censored search engines for China.
Some 650 Salesforce employees sent a letter to CEO Marc Benioff, asking the company to reconsider its contract with US Customs and Border Patrol after learning the agency was using its products to “manage border activities.” Microsoft employees have questioned the company’s chief executive over the company’s contracts with ICE. And Amazon workers attempted to use their company-issued stock to compel their bosses to curb the organization’s contributions to climate change by submitting a resolution to shareholders suggesting they stop providing cloud services to oil and gas industries.
Those internal efforts have drawn oxygen from the likes of Larry Fink, the billionaire investor with BlackRock who, in a letter to the country’s top CEOs last year, pushed executives to look beyond profits and instead run their companies with the greater good in mind. This year, he pushed them to be leaders in a divided world. And they’ve happened in tandem with the #MeToo movement, which has empowered employees to fight workplace harassment.
Elizabeth Good, a manager at Wayfair and organizer of the walkout, said her group was inspired by efforts at other tech firms. And while she had some organizing experience working on political campaigns early in her career, most of the engineers she works with haven’t.
But they quickly picked up on the type of collaboration that’s needed to build a movement — it’s a lot like writing code using an open source platform.
“It’s open, it’s iterative, and collaborative by nature,” she said. “You can’t build software in a silo.”
So far, the Wayfair employees’ efforts have persuaded the company to give a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross. It’s a compassionate gesture, activists say, but one that doesn’t directly aid those who are being held in detention centers. They’re hoping that the company will change its policy on working with contractors along the Southern border and create a code of ethics to govern ethically fraught business dealings.
Gaines-Ross said the tech industry’s youngest employees are driving some of the newfound activism from college campuses to tech campuses.
“Student activists are coming into our workforce, and they are ready and prepared to speak their minds and to stand up for their values and beliefs,” she said. “That’s why I believe this whole movement is just going to continue to grow.”
While these activist efforts within the tech sector have not always been successful, executives of all kinds need to pay attention, and anticipate the fact that political movements can rise up in their midst, said Sandy Lish, the principal and cofounder of the Castle Group, a communications firm that helps companies develop crisis plans.
“We’ve seen for a long time that employees want to work for companies that have a soul,” but sponsoring community service days and 5-K race sponsorships aren’t enough anymore, she said. Employees want their leaders to think more broadly about how their actions shape the world.
In the wake of public backlash, some companies have tried to better anticipate problems. Mark Zuckerberg introduced plans at Facebook to tie employee compensation to a worker’s ability to address major social issues facing the company. Salesforce hired a chief ethical and humane use officer who would “develop a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology” within the company.
“You are seeing activist employees. That’s creating activist CEOs,” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said earlier this month while discussing the recent events. “My job as a CEO is to listen to my employees and my customers and to respond to them effectively.”
Lish said there’s no playbook for how companies should proactively respond to issues of social concern.
“Not every company has to hire a chief ethics officer, but there is an opportunity to say: What would we do? What do we believe in and stand for?” she said.
Good said employees were heartened by the support they received from their tech colleagues, including workers at Google in Kendall Square who walked out in solidarity with Wayfair employees. She said she hopes she’s helping to write the next chapter in the unfolding story of employee activism.
“We want to do this right,” she said, “and for people to look at what we’re doing and feel inspired.”
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the response of some 650 Salesforce employee to learning that US Customs and Border Patrol was using the company’s products to “manage border activities.” They wrote a letter to the company’s CEO.
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.