The Trump Divide at IBM

November 29, 2016, 4:27 PM UTC

Two open letters, issued from opposite ends of the IBM organizational chart, are getting equal attention this week.

The first one came a week after the election. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty wrote an open letter to President-Elect Donald Trump, which clearly spoke to the more optimistic version of his presidential persona.

“Last Tuesday night you spoke about bringing the country together to build a better future, and the opportunity to harness the creative talent of people for the benefit of all,” she began. “I am writing to offer ideas that I believe will help achieve the aspiration you articulated and that can advance a national agenda in a time of profound change.”

Her ideas involved the creation of “new” collar jobs IT jobs, filled by vocational training instead of traditional college; the need to include cybersecurity in any infrastructure plans; using IT to drive better health outcomes and eliminate government waste; tax reform and better health care for veterans.

Her tone was neutral, reasonable and clearly established IBM’s stake in key debates going forward, as both a tech innovator and employer.

But the letter did not sit right with one employee, a senior content strategist named Elizabeth Wood. After much thought, Wood wrote her own open letter, addressed directly to IBM’s chief executive, and announced she was resigning.

“Your letter offered the backing of IBM’s global workforce in support of his agenda that preys on marginalized people and threatens my well-being as a woman, a Latina and a concerned citizen.” That Rometty’s letter came so quickly after the election told Wood that the company had chosen to legitimize threats to our country for financial gain. “The president-elect has demonstrated contempt for immigrants, veterans, people with disabilities, Black, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ communities,” she wrote. “These groups comprise a growing portion of the company you lead, Ms. Rometty. They work every day for IBM’s success and have been silenced by your words.”

These two letters highlight the painful balancing act that chief executives and other leaders now face: How to work productively with a deeply divisive new government while reaffirming their commitment to the difficult work of maintaining an inclusive culture within their own ecosystems. Their businesses depend on mastering both.

“I was really offended — really deeply crushed,” Wood later told Slate. Wood had liked her job of two years and felt she had a future at IBM. But she just couldn’t stay. “This was such a welcoming letter that it was just really distressing.”

And as the news gets worse, the work will only get more difficult.

On Point

How should diversity experts feel about their career these days?After the election of Donald Trump, the growing diversity and inclusion field has suffered – but is it a setback? Something more? It's hard to know. The professionals who help companies build more inclusive cultures are understandably nervous. Some are hopeful that the tough talk about race will lead to openness. But many are reporting a new set of challenges. Now, they say, they have to work harder to tamp down heightened feelings of' us versus them', and public conflicts are popping up at the mere mention of a hot button term. NPR

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