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Want to have healthy talks about workplace wokeness? Don’t be like this tech CEO

June 16, 2022, 5:10 PM UTC

Backlash against the so-called Great Awokening keeps seeping into more tech C-suites. Already, we’re seeing some executives navigate this tricky terrain better than others.

Over the past month, multiple tech leaders have rebelled against the leftward shift of societal and workplace mores, arguing that their companies benefit from a more moderate, libertarian, or conservative atmosphere. The crew includes the top executives at Tesla, Netflix, Spotify, and cryptocurrency exchanges Coinbase and Kraken.

The nonconformist attitude shouldn’t come as a surprise to tech’s overwhelmingly liberal workforce

Top tech executives have turned their companies into increasingly political entities, taking strong stances on hot-button issues like abortion, voting, and LGBTQ+ rights. Far more often than not, these positions put tech firms in alignment with Democrats and in the crosshairs of Republicans. 

At the same time, some tech executives harbor libertarian or conservative political leanings, often out of frustration with onerous government regulation or attempts to restrict speech. Others believe in the benefits of an office culture that tolerates multiple viewpoints, even if it makes employees uncomfortable at times. 

In many ways, our increasingly progressive workplace is a healthier setting today than before. The #MeToo movement ushered in an important reckoning on sexual harassment. We’re more aware of gender and racial disparities, as well as outright discrimination. Employees feel more empowered to speak truth to power.

Yet there are still fair discussions to be had about the intersection of politics, personal beliefs, and corporate America. If you think this idea is hogwash, I’d recommend a report this week by The Intercept on how progressive nonprofits are getting torn apart by internal strife over politics and workplace policy.

Leading these conversations requires a deft touch from tech executives—some of whom are woefully unfit to meet the moment.

Among those unequipped for such sensitive discussions: Kraken CEO Jesse Powell, who leads the U.S.’s second-largest cryptocurrency exchange by market cap. Powell, who recently published a corporate manifesto espousing libertarian values, is under withering scrutiny following a New York Times report Wednesday that exposed his insensitive, insulting, and downright illogical worldview. 

In one glaring example, Powell wrote on an internal Slack channel that “most American ladies have been brainwashed in modern times” in response to a video suggesting women were too dumb to understand the value of Bitcoin. In his company culture document, Powell also wrote that “we don’t forbid offensiveness” and said employees should refrain from labeling speech as “toxic, hateful, racist, x-phobic, unhelpful, etc.” (The document has since been edited.)

By contrast, Netflix recently struck a savvier tone (albeit belatedly) with its messaging to employees offended by the company’s lucrative-but-controversial content. 

Following complaints that comedian Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix stand-up special contained transphobic material, Netflix published an updated corporate culture memo last month that clearly and concisely laid out its stance, eschewing the brash condescension of Powell’s diktats. 

“As employees we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values,” company officials wrote. “Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

The labor and consumer markets will dictate whether this rightward shift is worth the trouble. Employees and customers certainly could abandon companies adopting this approach. 

For executives who ultimately choose this path, keeping a foot out of their mouth is a good first step.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Recommended reading. Facebook plans to reengineer its main feed and make it more closely resemble TikTok, a shift that will push more recommended content unconnected to users, The Verge reported Wednesday. The change, originally documented in an internal memo and later confirmed by Facebook officials, follows a sharp slowdown in user growth and the rapid rise of ByteDance unit TikTok. Facebook also expects to feature short-form video more prominently and fold its Messenger feature back into the main app after separating it in 2014.

Clean hands at the top? Activision Blizzard’s board said Thursday that internal and external reviews did not uncover any evidence to suggest company leaders intentionally ignored claims of harassment by female employees, Reuters reported. The statement follows dozens of reports by current and former staffers alleging that male coworkers regularly engaged in harassment, discrimination, and inappropriate workplace behavior. The video game developer’s board said the inquiry found “some substantiated instances of gender harassment,” but it denied the existence of systemic issues within the company.

Shuffling its staffing plans. Spotify will slow hiring by 25% in the coming months, joining a slew of other tech companies scaling back amid the current bear market, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. The audio streamer still plans to raise its headcount this year, albeit at a slower pace than initially expected, as the company works toward ambitious revenue goals. Spotify added about 1,000 employees last year, bringing its total to 6,617 at the end of 2021. Company officials have not released hiring targets for this year.

Another safety plan. The Biden administration is launching a task force dedicated to stemming online abuse, making good on a long-ago campaign promise in light of recent violence fueled by digital radicalization, the Washington Post reported Thursday. The group will spend 180 days creating a set of recommendations for policymakers, tech companies, and other organizations. White House officials said the work will focus on illegal online conduct, partially a response to backlash against the administration’s since-scrapped Department of Homeland Security disinformation board.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A healthier approach? Netflix turned “binge-watch” into a household compound word, but that novel strategy might be losing its luster. As CNBC reported Wednesday, the video streamer could boost its sagging subscriber count by switching to a more-traditional release model, with new episodes spread out over multiple weeks. While Netflix’s rise owes in large part to its binge-watch strategy, in which all episodes of a television series season are released at once, millions of cost-conscious consumers are immediately canceling their streaming subscriptions after a favored show ends. Netflix has been willing to adapt in the face of a drastic stock price fall this year, announcing plans for a lower-priced subscription with ads, though it hasn’t committed to ditching the binge.

From the article:

Those familiar with the streaming space suggest more changes could come, including a stronger focus on franchise content and even a change to staggered releases of new episodic content.

Netflix has toyed with different release models, mostly due to pandemic-related delays in production, and noted that splitting seasons into two parts can be a “satisfying long binge experience” for subscribers. Still, the company has made no indication that it will transition away from releasing all episodes of scripted series at once. Instead, decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

“The risk is they break the economy”: Markets sink as investors fret that the Fed will start a recession, by Bernhard Warner

College students are rethinking their plans to wade into the wild waters of crypto, by Declan Harty

Ethereum maximalist Mark Cuban says the crypto crash reminds him of Warren Buffett’s advice: “When the tide goes out, you get to see who is swimming naked,” by Taylor Locke

Bill Gates jokes about why Microsoft retired Internet Explorer. “I guess we finally ran out of microchips,” by Chloe Taylor

Twitter cancels its companywide trip to Disneyland in latest sign of tech industry retrenchment, by Kurt Wagner and Bloomberg

The battle between autocracy and democracy has blinded us to the A.I. oligopoly, by Wendell Wallach

The plastic elephant in Amazon’s boardroom, by Matt Littlejohn

BEFORE YOU GO

Last call for Colorado. One final reminder that Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2022 is quickly approaching, and we still have spots available in Aspen. The annual conference, scheduled for July 11 to 13, will include events with tech bigwigs and copious networking opportunities high in the Rockies. The list of featured speakers includes Prabhakar Raghavan, senior vice president at Google; Lila Ibrahim, chief operating officer of DeepMind; Jen Rubio, cofounder and CEO of Away; and Jonathan Kanter, the Department of Justice’s antitrust chief. Top executives from IBM, Salesforce, Slack, and FedEx, among others, also will grace the St. Regis Aspen Resort. To apply to attend, click here.

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