Wayfair Walkout: The Era of Employee Activism

Last week, workers at Wayfair, an online furniture company, learned that the firm intended to fill a $200,000 order for bedroom furniture placed by BCFS, the non-profit organization that operates the migrant facilities for the US Department of Health and Human Services. Outraged by the knowledge that these beds would be put to use in the detention centers housing hundreds of unaccompanied minors, employees sent a letter to senior managers, imploring the company to refrain from transactions with BCFS and to establish a code of ethics to guide future business operations. When the leadership refused – citing their belief that the sale did not equate to support for the actions of BCFS – employees took to Twitter to plan a 1:00pm walkout from Wayfair’s Boston headquarters on June 26 as a means of protest.

This act of solidarity against corporate-backed human rights abuses serves to show how active engagement drives change in workplace culture.

My initial impression of SAS (and other responsible corporations) credited the progressive company values and ethical business practices to the pioneering visions of senior leadership. I believed in what Gartner, a research and advisory firm, calls the top-down approach to building a strong workplace culture. This strategy – which I learned about during a Gartner webinar called “Building a Culture of Integrity” – relies on the CEO and other executives to “set the tone at the top” regarding ethical behavior and corporate social responsibility. The assumption is that the message will “trickle down” through middle management to all employees, inspiring them to follow the example of these respected figures in the company.

While this method is highly popular among companies seeking to enforce better business practices, Gartner found that the top-down approach did not foster the trust between colleagues that is necessary for a strong workplace climate. Ethical employees must believe that their coworkers also value moral behavior over business or personal advancement. Thus, Gartner proposes that managers take a more direct approach in facilitating one-to-one dialogue with employees and rewarding ethical conduct. This recommendation suggests that companies must leverage the important role employees play in educating each other on ethical decision-making.

However, employees can offer support to more than just their peers. In building a culture of integrity, companies could adopt a bottom-up approach as well. Employees could hold their managers and executives accountable for large-scale decisions that influence the company’s brand or workplace culture.

Just as consumers and voters can hold businesses accountable by holding revenue hostage or by electing officials with regulatory agendas, employees can play an equally (if not more) important role in shaping both a company’s day-to-day operations and future priorities.

This capacity for employees to act as “accountability police” is very telling. When I compiled case studies of settlements reached between the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and US companies charged with sanctions violations on behalf of foreign subsidiaries, I found that a majority of cases were self-disclosed by the parent company after an employee reported unethical conduct through the ethics hotline. While researching potential misuses of machine learning technology, I learned that the employee petition against Google’s involvement with Project Maven, citing the ethically unclear implications of artificial intelligence in the military, influenced senior executives’ decision not to renew the Pentagon contract. Though executives call the shots, employees actually play a more important role in preventing human rights abuses or environmental exploitation, especially given the uptick in whistleblower protections and non-retaliation policies.

In the case of the Wayfair walkout, I hope that the employees are able to successfully influence the opinion of senior management to fundamentally change the direction of the company, though the fight is not over if the protest is unsuccessful. By pushing back against the people who essentially control their livelihood, those that walked out of Wayfair and into Copley Square that afternoon fulfilled their responsibility to speak out against an unethical company decision. Their actions will continue to inspire others to unite in influencing executive decisions from the bottom up.

Given that the fight for change is uphill and the tremendous power of large organization can seem overwhelming, I find it important to remember both the little and big things we can do to catalyze progress. At the risk of sounding cliché, I want to encourage us to take a courageous stand – just like the Wayfair protestors who may face termination – as employees, consumers and voters, to hold business leaders accountable. If the established corporate vision for change can trickle down, then simple acts of compliance with best practices can also rise up to shape a workplace culture of integrity. That leaves me with one question: how many more walkouts, petitions, and outrages must we support before business leaders weigh ethics equally with profit at the first step in decision-making?

Can “Big Bad Business” Be Good?

Can corporations truly do good?

Business leaders argue that the products or services offered by free market transactions drive the social and economic progress that advanced society to its present stage. Yet some scholars claim that the framework of capitalism is inherently exploitative of minority groups. If that is the case, can businesses work to address inequalities and offer solutions to global issues? After spending time reading the work of those activist scholars in my “Money, Sex, Power” class last semester, I wanted to determine if private business could impactfully self-regulate in a way to promote positive change. This dilemma led me to the idea of corporate social responsibility and this Pathways of Change internship, through which I will serve as an Ethics and Compliance Intern within the SAS Institute’s Legal Department. My role will give me the opportunity to better understand how businesses can balance profitability with social conscientiousness.

Big Business Cartoon
Photo by Trayko Popov

The SAS Institute is a world leader in analytics, offering a variety of software products and services tailored to solve the most challenging of business problems. Despite my non-technical background, the Cary Headquarters is the perfect setting for my learning because SAS has demonstrated continued commitment to corporate social responsibility since its conception in 1976. In fact, the original Statistical Analysis System, which gave the company its name, was born from the U.S. government’s need to analyze agricultural data to better understand the effect of soil, weather, and seed varieties on crop yields. SAS’ dedication to driving social change presents itself in three major ways: within the company’s innovative software solutions, direct community engagement, and strong sense of corporate citizenship. In my time here, I will focus my time on understanding the latter.

While SAS technologies serve a variety of benevolent purposes and the company works directly with local charities, I hope to spend my time unpacking how SAS acts upon its duty as a good corporate citizen. As an employer of almost 14,000 people worldwide, SAS places a heavy emphasis on fostering a human-centered workplace culture. By encouraging a healthy work-life balance, SAS retains passionate employees who are committed to the company’s continued success. This commitment is apparent through the company’s more casual dress code, flexible work hours, high-quality cafeterias, and policy of unlimited sick days. As a business with footing in 147 countries, SAS’ practices corporate social responsibility, promising to self-regulate through policies that promote social, economic, and environmental good. This includes the company’s installation of solar panels on campus buildings and robust Code of Ethics. Not only does SAS abide by the highest ethical standards in all business dealings, but its example actively encourages other corporations to do the same. The company is diligent in training all employees in ethical behavior, ensuring suppliers and contractors follow the pertinent codes of conduct, and adopting new environmentally-friendly technologies, among other practices.

After my first three days, I have already had the opportunity to take small glimpses into how SAS drives tangible social change. Some of these insights come in the form of small observations, such as the special parking spaces designated for drivers of hybrid vehicles and the recyclable coffee cups made from already repurposed materials. I have also carefully studied 19 employee policies, including the Code of Ethics, with the goal of developing a more efficient way for current employees to reaffirm their understanding of important company guidelines. Rather than creating a mountain of policies that employees see as boring pages with boxes to check off, the Ethics and Compliance team seeks to actively engage employees in the importance of ethical behavior. How we will achieve this is something I’m looking forward to exploring.

I’m also beginning to understand the larger movement in which SAS is involved with other like-minded corporations. In assisting with the update of SAS’ Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Content Index – which compiles the company’s various impact reports on issues like climate change, human rights, and corruption – I see the alignment between SAS’ mission and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As part of the UN Global Compact, this company has joined others in a pledge to align operations with upholding human rights, environmental sustainability, anti-corruption, etc. Given that my initial worry coming into this summer revolves around feelings of uncertainty regarding the true impact of my team’s work in affecting corporate social responsibility, these insights have given me some hope that corporations can hold each other accountable in addressing pressing challenges.

In the upcoming weeks, I will begin working on a project that aims to develop quantitative metrics in assessing reputational risks. Finding a way to measure the potential impact of negative events that change public opinions of a company or brand will pose an interesting challenge. Since the social impact space often lacks standardized measurements and the difficulty in assessing social, economic, and environmental impacts can deter companies from reporting meaningful progress, I am excited to be a part of this pioneering process. However, I still wrestle with the question: how realistic is it to expect companies to hold themselves, and each other, accountable? The case studies I have researched regarding reputational damage leave only examples of “bad business” at the forefront of my mind. In following unethical practices, Wells Fargo, Mylan, and Boeing (to name a few), risk lives and obstruct our progress towards the world envisioned by the UN in 2030.

How can we expect businesses to make changes if governments or international agencies have no regulatory power? Can my small-scale work with SAS make even a small difference in the industry? Are there ways to re-incentivize corporations to consider both impact and profit in daily operations? Will SAS’ forward-thinking initiatives be enough to spearhead change?