'A remarkable missed opportunity': Why Wayfair's response to employee walkout failed

The company's "business as usual" response missed the mark, say experts.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Wayfair should have better articulated its values before hundreds of employees walked out last week to protest the company’s decision to sell furniture to a contractor operating detention camps for migrant children from Mexico, say PR pros.

In response to the walkout, the home goods company could have referred to its own mission statement to "make home a reality for more of the many people in need of safe shelter and basic household items that help make a home," says Barie Carmichael, senior counselor at APCO Worldwide.

Instead, Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah defended the company’s decision by saying "it is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and … sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate."

This situation is a "remarkable missed opportunity" for Wayfair, says Carmichael.

Politics aside, Wayfair is in a position where its product is a necessity and the company could have better articulated its values as a company, she explains.

"Today, it’s not about just being in the business of money, but how you make that money," Carmichael says. "On Wayfair’s website, they talk about their mission and providing comfortable living. Today, a CEO needs to understand how their goals align with their mission and values."

The so-called #WayfairWalkout largely "disgusted" social media users, according to Brandwatch data provided to PRWeek. More than half of mentions of the hashtag were negative.

Brad MacAfee, global CEO of Porter Novelli, says American consumers are so political and partisan that even the "whiff" of association with border detention facilities would have likely generated a strong reaction.

Wayfair created a void in its narrative that others filled for them.

Like Carmichael, MacAfee says Wayfair could’ve done better explaining how its products and services could have improved the conditions at the detention facilities.

"It’s not they’re wrong [when they say] these are law abiding citizens or it’s a government organization and they have a right to buy from us," MacAfee says. "It’s more about bringing to life why this makes sense. And when organizations do that in particular by aligning to corporate values, the consuming audience, employees or partners can say: ‘I understand how you got to that decision.’"

Wayfair declined to comment.

Employee activism
The vitriol of the instantly viral Wayfair walkout is a "wake-up call" underscoring the new expectations that a growing generation of employees have for businesses, says Micho Spring, chair of Weber Shandwick’s global corporate practice and president of the New England region.

"Millennials are holding their companies accountable really in an unprecedented way," Spring says. "It’s a new labor movement. It used to be [that] labor organized around wages and benefits. It’s now organizing around values, which is truly a sea change."

During a town hall meeting, Wayfair co-founder and CTO Steve Conine voiced his own personal beliefs in audio obtained by The Atlantic. He said he’s "very much against these detention centers," but the company, a "profit-generating entity," can’t discriminate against customers.

"I’m sure they’ll play it back and wish they had a quicker response around values rather than around if it violated any laws," Spring says. "But I think they’re getting there. We’ll see how it all plays out."

How other brands are communicating about migrant matters
Kent Johnson, CEO of children's magazine Highlights, "denounced" the policy of family separation and "call[ed] for more humane treatment of immigrant children currently being held in detention facilities," in a statement last week.

Emphasizing the magazine’s own mission – to help children become their best selves – Johnson punted on the politics of the issue but also avoided Wayfair’s "business as usual" approach.

Johnson explains that Highlights released the statement to "reframe the conversation."

"We have to think of the children affected as our own children," he says. "And as adults in power, the children who are safe at home in our communities, they learn not by what we say, but what we do. The point we wanted to make is that the children are watching, and are looking to adults as positive examples in the world."

Highlights also did its proper due diligence, spending a considerable amount of time deliberating on what kind of statement it should issue, Johnson says. When he was confident he had the full support of his employees, the company moved forward.

"We’re blessed because we attract people who know the work they do is meant to and actually does result in a positive impact on children around the world," Johnson says. "So this is real for people in our company when we talk about children."

Bank of America also managed to escape the ire of the public. On the same day as the Wayfair walkout, the bank announced it is ending its business dealings with contractors servicing immigrant detention facilities.

Carmichael compares that situation to Dick’s Sporting Goods’ move to end sales of certain firearms after the Parkland, Florida, shooting. After the retailer discovered it lawfully the shooter a firearm – not the one used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – its CEO Ed Stack wrote an open letter explaining its policy change and position on gun control.

"Every company is now in a new business landscape," Carmichael says. "They have to investigate it and if they can get ahead of it, perhaps like Bank of America, they can take action and explain the rationale."

Spring adds that Bank of America succeeded "through careful planning and anticipation."

While some brands will be forced into taking a stand on conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border, others may be looking at ways to communicate proactively around this issue.

For example, Unilever is donating $50,000 to the Young Center and the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service (LIRS). In an internal memo to staffers, Amanda Sourry, president of Unilever North America, wrote that Unilever refused to "stand by and watch" the "neglect or mistreatment of the most vulnerable and innocent of people – children."

Unilever representatives were not immediately available for comment.

"I would caution everybody to make sure they go through some methodology so they know that any decision they make will truly align with their values and will hit, exceed or reach their stakeholder expectations," MacAfee says.

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