Opinion: CEO sparks outrage with comments on working parents, pets and moonlighting staff
Sell your dog and return to the office. Go ahead and try, but you can’t outwork me. And parents with full-time jobs? Don’t dare argue you can be both a primary caregiver and an employee.
Those were among the “inspiring” messages delivered by James Clarke, CEO of Utah-based Clearlink, in a town hall meeting to employees.
The meeting, of course, was recorded and leaked all over the Internet. And the reaction to Clarke’s comments and apparent disdain for some of his workforce has been as harsh as some of the words he chose to use.
Not every leader buys into the empathetic model. Some prefer a more aggressive posture. But there are lines that, when crossed, can cause staff to lose faith, to disengage further and to head for the exits. It’s always worth remembering that your most talented employees are the ones with the most options.
Clarke’s town hall speech, even the edited version posted to Reddit that I viewed — is worth a watch by any senior manager. It’s tone deaf, condescending and inspiring to no one.
Let’s break it down.
Clarke told staff that we “just need you to show up and give an honest day’s work — blood, sweat, tears and go home to your families after that and enjoy what’s really important.”
Not a bad start. But then it turned, rather abruptly.
“There’s not one of you here, and I challenge any one of you to outwork me, but you won’t,” he said. “I’m all in.”
That’s a slap in the face to the many employees who are going above and beyond. The “nobody does anything better than me” message from a leader is never well received.
Sell the family dog
He told the story of one of the company’s leaders who, in the wake of hearing return-to-office messaging, went out and sold the family dog.
“Which breaks my heart as someone who’s been… at the head of the humanization of pets movement,” said Clarke. “But truly, those are the sacrifices that are being made, and I honour you for those sacrifices.”
I have two dogs that are part of my family. I don’t want to be “honoured” for selling them off by an unempathetic leader. Instead, give me a supportive boss that allows me time to find appropriate day care and understands that sometimes things happen and I may need to attend to them for a vet appointment or an illness.
Staff moonlighting or not working at all
Clarke also took aim at some remote workers — apparently a total of about 30 — who “didn’t even open or crack open their laptops” for an entire month, including their manager.
“What does that say about us a company and that they’re still here?” he asked. “They’re still employees, nobody lost their job over this.”
He also raised the issue of workers who could be moonlighting at other companies with a second job.
“We don’t know. We hope that’s not the case. But we don’t know,” he said.
If you don’t know, don’t talk about it — especially in an all-employee meeting. Have that conversation at the boardroom table and deal with real issues as they come up.
And if you have that many employees who truly didn’t do a lick of work for more than four weeks straight? That’s more of an indictment of your leadership and the culture that you built.
But the biggest jaw-dropping moment came with Clarke’s discussion around childcare. It was a question that was “debated for hours and hours” among management with heated conversations.
He gave himself a pat on the back, noting that he served on the board of an organization that “does nothing but raise money for scholarships for single mothers.”
Clarke said “breadwinning mothers were hit the very hardest by this pandemic.”
“Many of you have tried to tend your own children and, in doing so, also manage your demanding work schedules and responsibilities,” he said. “And while I know you’re doing your best, some would they’ve even mastered this art, but one could also argue that generally this path is neither fair to your employer nor fair to those children.”
He qualified that by saying he doesn’t necessarily believe it, and then doubled-down.
“I do believe that only the rarest of full-time caregivers can also be productive and full-time employees at the same time,” said Clarke. “You may take issue with any part of this, but I believe that the data will also support this in time.”
He then lauded a vice-president, a mom, who traded in her full-time position for a part-time one — which he called a “fair balance” between being a parent and a worker.
Clarke’s company is based in Utah, with no Canadian operations listed on its website. There’s a little thing in Canada called “family status accommodation” that would make his comments very unpopular in front of a human rights tribunal or a judge.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Clarke also spoke about diversity, and criticized people who were speaking up about issues that didn’t affect them.
“Many would argue that you are only the voice of an underserved community. Many who have been the loudest voices are not representing their community at all. They are not affected as working mothers. They are not affected as those who will asked to return to an office, but many of them have been the most vocal,” he said. “These three letters — DEI — can only exist where you can respect and even revere the person who directly opposes your view or those of your chosen community.”
In these quarters, it’s laudable when a worker stands up and gives voice to an issue that doesn’t affect them. That’s how we can get real change, and not just rely on the people who are being impacted by the problem to speak up and fix it.
The video Talent Canada viewed concluded with a warning from the CEO about negative feedback he has received.
“I took it. And I listened, and I was kind and I responded with kindness,” he said. “But no more. You have misinterpreted my kindness for weakness, you’ve continued to do so and it will stop. It’s not going to be permitted by me.”
Kindness and empathy are essential qualities of leadership. They build trust, a positive work environment and a culture where people feel valued and supported. Every organization need that and I doubt many on Clarke’s payroll feel any of those elements.
While some workers may take try and take advantage of a leader’s kindness, it doesn’t mean a 180-degree course correction is necessary.
Hold people accountable? Great. Tackle poor behavior in the moment and one-on-one? Appropriate.
But don’t adopt Clarke’s philosophy. Kindness is not a weakness. It’s a strength, a superhero even, for leaders with thick skin to leverage and build engaged, productive and loyal workforces.
Todd Humber is the senior editor for Talent Canada.
Watch Clarke’s remarks
You can see a copy of the video on Reddit at https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/12qwmms/update_utahs_clear_link_keeps_filing_copyright/
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