Welcome back to Ask a Tech Worker. For each installment, I head out to the streets of downtown San Francisco to chat with tech employees and entrepreneurs about issues affecting the workplace. Got an idea for a future edition? Email me.
It’s expected at this point: Tech companies — especially big ones — taking a public stance on social and political issues. Between threats to abortion rights, LGBTQ+ issues, the climate crisis, racial justice and the war in Ukraine, there’s no shortage of issues for companies to speak out about, or take action on. At the same time, there’s some interest in the tech world in being less political about issues that don’t directly serve the company’s mission.
But what do workers actually expect from their companies here? Is it more of a risk to stay quiet, or to take a stance that might provoke backlash among employees, customers or investors? I returned to Salesforce Park last week to ask workers when they want their employers to speak out, when they want them to step back — and when it all just looks like a PR stunt.
What I found: The workers I met had few reservations about their employers taking a stand on social and political issues, leaning toward wanting them to speak out. But they notice when companies hesitate, when they sound phony and when their statement is watered down to the point that no one could ever disagree with it.
“All these companies have accrued vastly disproportionate amounts of power, and along with that comes some sort of social responsibility to the communities that we exist within,” said software engineer Dan Spaeth of X, Alphabet’s so-called “moonshot factory.” “It’s definitely something to be wielded cautiously because when you have that power, making those statements is a form of exercising it.”
Sanika Doolani, a product designer at Salesforce, said she usually likes when companies speak out, offering the war in Ukraine as an example of a high-impact issue that some companies have been vocal about.
“When I see companies speaking about all these things, it feels like we are all in it together,” Doolani said.
And when companies wait to speak out — or take a stance that proves unpopular — that can provoke action from employees.
Philip, a Salesforce employee who declined to give his last name, pointed to Disney’s initial unwillingness to condemn Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that will ban schools from teaching kids in the third grade and below about sexual orientation and gender identity.
After Disney employees challenged that decision, Disney CEO Bob Chapek flipped and opposed the law. But it was too late by that point, and employees still held a walkout.
Philip applauded the grassroots effort.
“You look at the Disney thing going on right now, and they didn’t make a decision until employees made it a problem,” Philip said. “I feel like, ‘Good job, employees.’ And now they’re getting some backlash [for] it.”
Politics are a minefield, and companies will risk backlash no matter what. So how do you calculate that risk? Spaeth said he’d be more likely to get angry at an employer for not saying anything than for saying something with which he disagreed. He’s watched as past employers put out statements that were “not fully representative of their own situation,” he said, but noted that he hasn’t objected to social and political statements that they’ve made.
As it is, corporate political statements tend to be watered down and “very anodyne,” to the point where the only people who might be upset by them are people who would “get mad at anything,” Spaeth said.
Companies should also avoid phoniness. Many of these statements can come across as PR stunts, workers told me.
“Sometimes, it is a PR stunt,” Philip said. “There are times when they speak out, and I’m like, ‘Oh, is that because of the bottom line, or is it because of actually wanting an outcome that has nothing to do with business?’”
But, Spaeth said, scoring PR points isn’t always a bad thing.
“Whenever these statements are made, they are a PR thing, on some level,” Spaeth said. “That said, I don’t think it’s the worst thing to generate PR in a way that is positive.”