Wayfair employees pushed back after they say executives rejected a worker request to forgo business with contractors helping the U.S. government-run migrant border camps, according to social media posts from an independent group of workers and multiple news reports. Employees are asking the online furniture retailer to cease sales or donate proceeds to groups aiding migrants.
A group of 547 workers who had signed a petition given to company leadership is staging a walkout at 1:30 pm on Wednesday near the company's Boston headquarters, according to the Twitter handle @wayfairwalkout, and which has been widely reported by multiple news organizations. Some workers in Maine are joining them, according to the Portland Press Herald. CNBC also reported that the news organization was able to obtain and verify a copy of a Wayfair receipt of a June 13 sale of approximately 1,600 mattresses and 100 bunk beds intended for camps along the southern border.
Wayfair didn't respond to Retail Dive's request for comment. In a lengthy written response the walkout group says the company provided, which the group published on Twitter, Wayfair management appeared to defend its practice "to fulfill orders for all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate. We believe all of our stakeholders, employees, customers, investors and suppliers included, are best served by our commitment to fulfill all orders. This does not indicate support for the opinions or actions of the groups or individuals who purchase from us."
The documents the worker group provided via social media could not immediately be authenticated by Retail Dive. Wayfair has so far remained silent, neither disputing nor defending the handling of its employees' request at a time when the border migration crisis is making headlines.
"We, the undersigned, are writing to you from a place of concern and anger about the atrocities being committed at our Southern border," the worker memo reads in part (bold in original). "The United States government and its contractors are responsible for the detention and mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in our country — we want that to end. We also want to be sure that Wayfair has no part in enabling, supporting, or profiting from this practice."
The idea of employees pressuring leadership to make a move that aligns with their values may have been unheard of at one time, but today companies should expect it, according to research from Global Strategy Group emailed to Retail Dive. Nearly all workers (94%) believe it's important that their employer discuss the company's policies, goals and priorities with them, while 82% want to discuss issues or challenges the company is facing and 72% want to discuss the company's social impact, the organization found.
tl;dr - Wayfair sold beds to furnish border camps; 547 employees signed a petition to ask that we cease all business with border camps; CEO said no —>employees are walking out tmrw at 1:30pm. We ask that Wayfair donate all profits made from the sale to RAICES #WayfairWalkout— wayfairwalkout (@wayfairwalkout) June 25, 2019
"I don't think that anyone who's following this closely should be surprised that employees are becoming activist. We're going to see this play out more and more — it's a documented trend," Global Strategy Group Partner and Managing Director Tanya Meck told Retail Dive in an interview. "We are in a very different world today than we were even a few years ago, where consumers and employees are feeling empowered to stick up for what they believe in."
The Wayfair workers' memo also asserted that, "In a recent Executive AMA with Margaret Lawrence [vice president of Wayfair Professional], the question of whether or not we have a code of business ethics for B2B sales was raised. Margaret answered, 'It is our hope that we hire ethical, empathetic, and savvy team members whose judgment we trust in building our business partnerships. If you know of a specific business, please connect with me offline so we can properly investigate.'"
That was probably the time to engage with employees over the border camp order, which included beds for children at the border camps, according to brand strategist Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing and author of "Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand That Thrives in Turbulent Times."
"This is really complicated for any organization — it's a highly politicized and complicated issue," she told Retail Dive in an interview. "This particular issue is even more hotly charged because it involves children. This letter [from executives in response to employees] went too far into detail — it reads like it was written by a committee and put together likely with lawyers involved. When the employees delivered their letter, that was the initial opportunity — that would have been the moment when I would have brought in my leadership team, my crisis communicators and my employees. When you take a stance to say 'we're not going to get involved,' that's a stand in itself and it's adding to the mix and is a recipe for disaster."
Indeed, workers today expect a back and forth with their employers, according to Meck, whose team found that 60% say that communication at their company is "top-down and it's difficult for employees to communicate with leadership or give feedback."
With customers and employees chiming in on social media, Wayfair is in the midst of a brand crisis, according to Matt Rizzetta, CEO and founder of marketing firm North 6th Agency. "We've studied brand crises of the most severe magnitude over the past several years," he said in an email to Retail Dive. "Uber, United, and more recently, brands like Target. Wayfair's recent crisis is by the far the most damaging and disgraceful of them all, as it reeks of dysfunction and insensitivity on many levels, including human rights, employee relations and customer values."
The walkout Wednesday could force the company's hand, notes Josh Ginsberg, CEO of media intelligence software company Zignal Labs. "Studies have shown that 9 out of ten consumers prefer to shop with companies that share their moral beliefs, and they expect companies and CEOs to take stands on moral and policy issues," he told Retail Dive in an email. "This makes it challenging for companies in situations like Wayfair to balance what employees want with fulfilling orders. In the past we have seen companies change their mind after employee walkouts. It will be interesting to see how Wayfair responds in this situation."