In a profile of the online home-goods giant Wayfair in this year’s Fortune 500 issue, writer Jeff O’Brien describes having lunch with co-founder Niraj Shah in the Boston-based company’s cafeteria “in the midst of a near monoculture of twentysomethings.”
Turns out the young rank-and-file workers have minds of their own. More than 500 employees have signed a letter to the company’s leadership protesting Wayfair’s sale of $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to a government contractor that operates shelters for migrant children on the southwestern border. The workers called for Wayfair to halt all business with the nonprofit contractor, BCFS, and to create a code of ethics for dealing with business-to-business customers.
Because the company refused to change course, dissident employees plan to walk out of the company’s headquarters this afternoon. Their protest has drawn national attention as well as support from Democratic lawmakers, including U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who tweeted: “This is what solidarity looks like—a reminder that everyday people have real power, as long as we’re brave enough to use it.”
While a business is not a democracy, workers have been making their voices heard lately in high-profile actions to protest company policies. At Google, employees walked out last year to object to the company’s handling of sexual-harassment complaints. At Microsoft, workers protested the company’s $480 million contract to sell its Hololens augmented-reality technology to the U.S. Army, saying the company had “crossed the line” into weapons development.
The Wayfair protest comes at a time of increased scrutiny of the treatment of migrant children in overcrowded shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border. The publication of a disturbing photo of the bodies of a father and 23-month-old daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande heightened the sense of tragedy.
“Knowing what’s going on at the southern border and knowing that Wayfair has the potential to profit from it is pretty scary,” Elizabeth Good, a Wayfair manager and one of the walkout’s organizers, told the New York Times. “I want to work at a company where the standards we hold ourselves to are the same standards that we hold our customers and our partners to.”
Wayfair executives met with about 500 employees Tuesday afternoon in a town-hall meeting that “was heated at times,” according to a Boston Globe report. Company co-founder Steve Conine told workers he objected to the detention centers but that blocking a lawful customer’s purchase would be heading down a “slippery slope,” he said, according to a recording provided to the Globe.
“The level of your citizenship as citizens is really the appropriate channel to try and attack an issue like this. To pull a business into it—we’re not a political entity. We’re not trying to take a political side,” Conine told employees. He did agree, however, to establish a code of ethics for corporate clients.
The tech-driven Wayfair has been growing rapidly, entering the Fortune 500 this year at No. 446, with $6.8 billion in revenues and more than 12,000 employees. However, “there’s a black mark on the company. It’s deep in the red,” Fortune reported, with losses of $504 million last year. Fortune quoted a marketing professor who said the company is spending too much, about $88, to bring in every new customer. What remains to be seen is whether a high-profile protest will make it even harder to bring in those new sofa buyers.