The ‘leave pity city’ CEO says she feels terrible that her ‘rallying cry seemed insensitive’

April 21, 2023, 5:18 PM UTC
A screenshot of Andi Owen
A video published last Sunday by a Twitter user capturing MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen’s remarks has crossed 10 million views so far.
Screengrab from @conzmoleman/Twitter

No one likes hearing that they’re not getting bonuses. But employees at furniture design company MillerKnoll, were told by CEO Andi Owen in no uncertain terms to “leave pity city” and stop asking about compensation in a leaked video of a company town hall that went viral on social media earlier this week. 

Now, Owen is apologizing to her employees for not conveying the message in the right way, MLive, a Michigan-based news outlet, reported Wednesday. “I want to be transparent and empathetic, and as I continue to reflect on this instance, I feel terrible that my rallying cry seemed insensitive,” Owen said in an email to employees. “What I’d hoped would energize the team to meet a challenge we’ve met many times before landed in a way that I did not intend, and for that I am sorry.”

She also added: “Nothing will lessen the power and strength of our collective team. My appreciation for each of you is huge, and I will continue to do everything I can to help us meet our shared goals.

MillerKnoll did not immediately return Fortune’s request for comment.

Pep talk gone wrong

Owen came under fire this week when a short video clip of her bonus comments from a 75-minute videoconference started doing rounds on social media. 

The agenda of the town hall for the Zeeland, Mich.–based company was focused on customer service and performance goals, according to NPR. Owen said she had received questions from employees about how they can stay motivated if they lose their bonuses. 

She started by telling employees to be kind and lead by example, but then dismissed their concerns and asked them to focus instead on achieving the internal performance target.

“Don’t ask about ‘what are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus?’ Get the damn $26 million,’” Owen said in the video clip. “Spend your time and your effort thinking about the $26 million we need and not thinking about what you’re going to do if you don’t get a bonus, all right? Can I get some commitment for that?”

Owen then alluded to her former boss who told her: “You can visit pity city, but you can’t live there.”

“So, people, leave pity city. Let’s get it done,” she said. 

A video published last Sunday by a Twitter user capturing Owen’s remarks has crossed 10 million views so far. Many pointed out that the CEO took home nearly $5 million last year, with only $1.1 million of that coming from her base salary.

One Twitter user wrote: “This is Andi Owen, CEO of @millerknoll who cancelled workers bonuses, took a massive bonus herself, asks everyone to stay nice, tells her workers to ‘get out of pity city,’ then tells them to get out there and get her another $26 million in business. She gets unhinged at the end.”

Another user tweeted chimed in: “Andi Owen, CEO of MillerKnoll, gaslighting her employees while she collects a FAT bonus check. These people are the ones fueling an anti-work movement.”

MillerKnoll’s shares have fallen 5% this week in the wake of the criticism against Owen.

This is not the first time a CEO’s video call has gotten them in hot water. In 2021, a clip of CEO Vishal Garg firing employees via video call was leaked to Fortune and went viral on TikTok. He told employees that they “will not be allowed to fail twice” and failing to meet deadlines would “not be acceptable.” Following the backlash, Garg apologized and later took a leave of absence.

In recent years, CEOs have provoked criticism for taking home paychecks that defy company performance and macroeconomic conditions, or are significantly higher than what rank-and-file workers make. A study published last October found that CEO pay has increased 1,460% since 1978, and now, CEOs make 399 times what an average worker makes.

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