How CEOs are preparing for possible employee protests

How CEOs are preparing for possible employee protests

Apr 29,2024

A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business’ Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here. You can listen to an audio version of the newsletter by clicking the same link.

New York CNN  — 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently fired about 50 employees for protesting the company’s relationship with the Israeli government. His explanation boiled down to four words: This is a business.

Some people disagreed with his actions, including the group that organized the protest.

“Google is throwing a tantrum because the company’s executives are embarrassed about the strength workers showed at last Tuesday’s historic sit-ins, as well as their botched response to them,” the No Tech for Apartheid group said in a statement.

As workers around the country see protests against the Israel-Hamas war and encampments proliferate on college campuses, they might wonder if these actions could start to spread to offices as well.

Before the Bell spoke with Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of trade association SHRM, previously known as the Society for Human Resource Management, about how companies are preparing for potential protests among employees and how workers should express opposing views at the office and beyond.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you think Google’s actions were justified? Should employees be allowed to protest at their place of work? 

I fundamentally, 1,000%, agree with Sundar Pichai.

Companies often offer forums where you can share your thoughts, because they want to welcome a diverse perspective. That’s a good place for an employee to share their feelings. You can’t share your feelings by blocking entrances to work, that’s not okay. Taking over the president of a division’s office, not okay. We are ultimately here, as organizations, to run a business. Anything that disrupts the running of that business is not okay.

We hire people and encourage people to have diverse opinions about these things. We don’t want a monolithic workforce, and we’re not judging who’s right or wrong. We’re just saying you can’t disrupt work.

Should employees be worried about protesting outside of the workplace? 

It depends. You shouldn’t engage in anything that compromises a company’s reputation, even outside of working hours. You have to be really careful there, it’s your time and you have a right to protest and to have a point of view. But if that in any way does not reflect your company’s culture or values or (causes) disrepute to their brand, they have a right to fire you. You can always choose to move on, but remember you don’t have a right to work at most companies.

How should corporate leadership work with or address rising tensions in the workplace? 

Good leadership says, ‘we respect your differences and we embrace them.’ Diversity is something they should be committed to. They should say that we can disagree, but we’ve got to disagree better.

Good leadership is CEOs convening their employees and telling them they can talk about their perspectives but that yelling at, shaming or embarrassing colleagues is always unacceptable behavior and a behavioral offense. More and more CEOs are laying this out, we have reached that point. Practicing incivility is not something they’re going to tolerate.

I’m actually pleased about that. Because I think we overcorrected, we actually did. Wanting people to bring their full selves to work is great, but what we have found is people want diversity, as long as they agree with it.

You’d be surprised about how many people want to come to work just to work. They’re not interested in debating social issues at work.

Should the leadership at companies being called out by protesters respond? 

Generally you ignore it. Every day, there will be some group of employees who don’t agree with who you do business with, who does business with you, etc. Just by definition, a CEO could find him or herself every day having to address every one of their client relationships. We establish upfront, the head of HR and the CEO, what our values are and how we’re going to operate. You have to make that clear to employees, we call it cultural clarity. And then employees can self-select — they don’t have to work there.

But there are some issues that are worth addressing and we clearly don’t want to suppress employees or stop them from sharing with us. I think it comes down to three words: challenge, decide, commit.

If you think we should not do business with whomever, then challenge it. I want to hear from my employees as the CEO, and so I give permission to challenge our practices. Based upon that, I will respond and then you have to decide. And after you decide, you must commit. And there are off-ramps for employees if they don’t like the decision.

So, generally, we encourage CEOs to want to be challenged to think differently. But they need to be challenged respectfully and civilly. But once a decision is made, that’s it. We can’t keep re-litigating when we also have a business to run

You speak with CEOs every day. Are they worried about employee protests? 

Yes. Most of the CEOs I’ve talked to said they haven’t seen their employees protest, but they’re bracing for it. They don’t think this will be isolated to Google. But I will say that I don’t think it will become that widespread because of how swiftly and unapologetically Google addressed it. I don’t think it will become a thing.

I think Google’s response has given a lot of cover to other companies, but I’m hearing a lot of management teams put plans into place just in case.

Rolls-Royce is growing its factory so it can build cars more slowly

Rolls-Royce is vastly expanding its factory in Chichester, England. The BMW subsidiary is adding five new buildings with construction planned to start next year, reports my colleague Peter Valdes-Dapena.

Usually, when a carmaker expands a factory it’s for one simple reason: building more cars. But this is Rolls-Royce. Making and selling more Rolls-Royces would undermine the brand’s vaunted exclusivity.

So this factory expansion isn’t about making more cars, but making more expensive cars, which takes more time and requires more space for workshops and storage of exotic materials.

The expansion signals something about Rolls-Royce’s ultra-wealthy clientele. While they can only buy so many cars, they can certainly spend more on each one.

Since 2020, Rolls-Royce sales have increased 17%, reaching a record of 6,032 cars and SUVs worldwide last year. Over that same time, though, the average amount of money customers paid for their cars increased 43%, going from $350,000 in 2020 to $500,000 each, on average, last year.

That increased revenue per vehicle comes largely from more complex and time-consuming customization — “bespoke,” as Rolls-Royce terms it — requests. It even calls its luxury customization programs “Bespoke” and, for fully customized models, “Coachbuild.”

“We’re not necessarily growing that much in volume,” said Martin Fritsches, president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Americas. “That’s obviously not our focus point. But clearly, our bespoke area is gaining and relevant. And has been expanding dramatically, particularly in the last couple of years.”

CEOs of OpenAI, Google and Microsoft to join other tech leaders on federal AI safety panel

The US government has asked leading artificial intelligence companies for advice on how to use the technology they are creating to defend airlines, utilities and other critical infrastructure, particularly from AI-powered attacks, report my colleagues Brian Fung and Sean Lyngaas.

The Department of Homeland Security said Friday that the panel it’s creating will include CEOs from some of the world’s largest companies and industries.

The list includes Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman, but also the head of defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman and air carrier Delta Air Lines.

The move reflects the US government’s close collaboration with the private sector as it scrambles to address both the risks and benefits of AI in the absence of a targeted national AI law.

The collection of experts will make recommendations to telecommunications companies, pipeline operators, electric utilities and other sectors about how they can “responsibly” use AI, DHS said. The group will also help prepare those sectors for “AI-related disruptions.”

“Artificial intelligence is a transformative technology that can advance our national interests in unprecedented ways,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, in a release. “At the same time, it presents real risks — risks that we can mitigate by adopting best practices and taking other studied, concrete actions.”

Among the panel’s other participants are the CEOs of technology providers such as Amazon Web Services, IBM and Cisco; chipmakers such as AMD; AI model developers such as Anthropic; and civil rights groups such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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