Netflix CEO Reed Hastings didn’t want to know. While his employees demanded that their boss be the last show (The closest) by comedian Dave Chappelle of the streaming service because of the “transphobic” nature of the jokes, Hastings has been a staunch defender of the right to free speech.
“We will continue to work with Dave Chappelle. We see him as a unique voice, although I can understand why you don’t want to see his show, ”Hastings said in an internal conversation which was leaked via The New York Times. “In stand-up comedy, the actors say all kinds of absurd things to have effect. Some like this art form, some don’t.
On Wednesday, some Netflix staff at its California headquarters will stop working in an attempt to change CEOs. Employee anger has been fueled in recent days after Netflix decided to fire one of the protest organizers for “leaking trade secrets.” The woman had shared with the Bloomberg news agency details on the costs incurred by Netflix to broadcast the Chappelle show: $ 24.1 million (20.9 million euros).
It is the rule rather than the exception for tech workers to stop working because of a sensitive issue. Virtually all of America’s big tech companies have had to deal with “exits” in recent years, in which staff have temporarily taken off work.
For example, employees demanded from their leaders plans to tackle climate change (Amazon, Microsoft), tougher action against right-wing extremism (Facebook) and a strict approach to sexual misconduct (Activision Blizzard). The employees also asked their employer to cancel contracts it had signed with the United States Department of Defense (Google) or the United States Immigration Service (Salesforce).
Also read this article about promotions on Netflix: Growing Concern Within Netflix Over Comedian Dave Chappelle’s “Transphobic” Jokes
A difficult group
Where does all this will to act come from?
In the United States, technology companies have traditionally been among the least organized industries for workers. Often there are no unions: employees show little interest and employers try to discourage their training. In the Netherlands too, employees of technology companies, often expatriates or seconded with few ties to their employer, are generally not unionized.
According to FNV union director Bob Bolte, tech workers have traditionally been a “difficult group to organize,” he says. “A strange kind of people, who are quite focused on themselves. The culture within tech companies is this: If you want a raise, you move on to another employer instead of fighting for it as a collective. “
If there is any action for better working conditions and higher wages, it will be in tech companies that use a lot of non-IT workers. Think Amazon warehouse workers, Uber taxi drivers, and Gorillas bike couriers.
Staff walkouts from companies like Netflix, Facebook, or Google have a completely different purpose. It is a way for staff to pressure the summit to take a stand on important social issues such as racism and climate change, says union official Bob Bolte. He sees in it “the attempts of a new generation of workers who want to change their companies for a better world”.
Actions create a dilemma for corporate directors. On the one hand, they feel compelled to adapt to the protesting workplace. The actions are often carried out by talents for the most part progressive, technically trained, who have the choice of employers and who take into account social involvement in the choice of a job.
At the same time, how far should a company go in its political or social positions? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wouldn’t accept it, he said, because the heart of Netflix’s strategy is not a better world, but “the enjoyment of our subscribers.”
Practice shows that senior executives are indeed action sensitive. For example, Jeff Bezos, then CEO of Amazon, pledged to make a “climate pledge” after his employees campaigned for a greener policy. Google broke its contract with the Department of Defense for Project Maven after employee protests, under which Google would help make assault weapons accurate. And American Steve Sonne resigned from the US-Dutch Booking.com board under pressure after employees complained about posts on his social media in which he sympathized with supporters of President Trump.
Software company Basecamp has proven that things can be very different. There, CEO Jason Fried became so tired of all the political debates of his employees that he made a drastic decision in April of this year. He banned all political discussion in the workplace. “We don’t have to solve deep social problems. We make software. And that’s more than enough for us, “he said.
The result: Basecamp was empty. A third of the employees quit and moved on to another tech company. A week later, Fried his excuses To. “We have a lot to learn and a lot to think about. We are sorry.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of October 19, 2021
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