Corporate dissent over Donald Trump puts US executives in the hot seat


New York: Only hours after IBM chief executive officer Ginni Rometty congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory and offered to work with him on economic goals, IBM software engineer Daniel Hanley drafted a petition. The document urged Rometty to “do what’s right for IBMers,” including “respect our right to refuse to participate in any government contracts that violate constitutional and civil liberties.” The petition now has more than 1,600 signatures.

Since Trump took charge at the White House, executives at companies including the Cleveland Clinic, Facebook and Uber have come under internal pressure to answer for not just their policies but their politics. Employees like Hanley are pushing top bosses to sever their personal or professional ties to the administration, registering their dissent with protests, walkouts, and open letters. A handful has even resigned.

Companies have been the targets of political protests before—think defence contractors during the Vietnam War or Coca-Cola during apartheid—but employees have typically stayed out of it. “There’s been nothing this substantial by employees,” said Roger Gottlieb, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor who has written about protest movements. “It may be a reflection of the new economy where employees feel less allegiance and entitled to more of a say.”

The new corporate dissenters don’t necessarily go quietly, either. After Oracle co-chief executive Safra Catz joined Trump’s transition team, George Polisner, 57, quit his post as a manager of cloud operations—and detailed his reasons for doing so in a post on LinkedIn that’s now been viewed more than 350,000 times. Elizabeth Holli Wood, 31, has been a vocal critic of IBM after quitting her job there in protest.

Even job candidates are drawing lines in the sand. A 39-year-old lawyer cancelled an interview with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius after reading that the Philadelphia firm had handled Trump’s ethics and conflicts-of-interest compliance and won a “Russia Law Firm of the Year” award. The candidate, who didn’t want to be named, wrote to the recruiter that he couldn’t work at a firm that didn’t seem to share his principles. “Morgan Lewis attorneys have assisted clients of all political persuasions in many other contexts,” a Morgan Lewis spokesman said, adding that there had been “zero drop-off” in lawyers interested in working with the firm.

A petition against a Cleveland Clinic fundraiser scheduled to take place at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., was in response to the 27 January executive order that banned travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries. Because of the ban, a medical resident from Sudan couldn’t return to Cleveland for more than a week, and foreign patients scheduled for treatment couldn’t travel to the clinic.

“The whole point of becoming a doctor is taking care of people. It’s our obligation to say something,” said Vanessa Van Doren, a 31-year-old medical student who started the petition. “They’ve held their fundraiser at the Trump resort every year and decided to continue that. … I decided to do something about it.”

The internal protests have met with mixed results so far. IBM’s Rometty continues to advise Trump, a company spokesman said. So does Cleveland Clinic CEO Tony Cosgrove, and the Florida fundraiser is still on, despite the 1,700 doctors, nurses, and medical students who asked it to be cancelled. “The sole purpose of our event in Florida is to raise funds for important research that advances cardiovascular care,” said Eileen Sheil, the clinic’s executive director of corporate communications.

Executives elsewhere are listening to their workers. At Facebook, employees advised CEO Mark Zuckerberg to examine the role the company played in the dissemination of fake news; soon after, he announced a company initiative to address the platform’s connection to the spread of false reports.

After protests by drivers, corporate employees, and customers, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick earlier this month wrote to employees announcing that he was leaving the president’s advisory council and distancing himself from the travel restrictions. “Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s,” Kalanick wrote. “Staying on the council was going to get in the way” of Uber’s advocacy for that.

Employees at Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson may have successfully scuttled a visit by the president to the company’s powertrain facilities in Wisconsin. According to the Chicago Tribune, workers leaked plans for a potential visit to a local anti-Trump group, which threatened to protest. (The company said Trump’s plans to visit the Wisconsin factory were never solidified.)

Few enterprises may follow the lead of Comcast, which gave employees paid time off to protest the travel ban, but “companies that want to hold on to their best talent are going to have to explain and uphold the values their corporations espouse on everything from diversity to protecting the environment,” says Subha Barry, vice-president of Working Mother Media, which publishes a report on diversity in the workforce.

Doing so sends a signal to employees and may avoid an unwelcome spotlight. Polisner’s LinkedIn post drew plenty of attention—“I am not here to help (Trump) in any way,” he wrote—but he added that he wouldn’t have quit so publicly if the CEO had taken a leave of absence from Oracle.