CEO Jim Hackett Responds to Activist Employees with Respect, Reason and Resolve
7/15/2020 – – Earlier this year I predicted that companies would increasingly be dealing with what I call “activist employees” — members within a corporate family demanding change. Citing examples of internal tension at Amazon and the online furniture retailer Wayfair, I characterized this heightened level of employee engagement as an unintended consequence of another trend continuing to gain momentum:
Recognizing that employees and customers want companies to take moral stands in harmony with their own ethical and political views, CEOs are injecting themselves more and more into public controversies they would have steered clear of just a few years ago. This well-meaning willingness to rumble has empowered employees to follow suit. They’re following the example set by senior management and feel confused and betrayed when they get their ears pinned back.
Ford Motor Company CEO Jim Hackett recently received a letter sent by an estimated 100 Ford employees (Ford employs 85,000 people in the U.S.) demanding that the company “cease development, production and sale of all custom police vehicles and products,” charging that, “Throughout history, the vehicles that Ford employees design and build have been used as accessories to police brutality and oppression.”
Put yourself in Hackett’s shoes. He’s juggling a number of competing concerns:
- In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the entire nation is debating the need for police reform. Hackett is personally leading “a review of our (Ford’s) Diversity and Inclusion rituals, practices and behaviors.” He and Ford Chairman Bill Ford, who was copied on the employee letter, have been outspoken supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
- At the same time, The Detroit Free Press estimates that Ford manufactures about two thirds of the police vehicles sold to public safety departments across America. Fleet sales of Ford’s Police Interceptor (a custom-designed and specially equipped Explorer SUV) are very profitable at a time all auto manufacturers are struggling in a highly competitive market impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
- And while no CEO appreciates “demands” made by his or her own employees (the letter insisted that Ford “take action by July 15”), caring, engaged employees are a good thing. Are they simply responding to Hackett’s pleas to embrace Ford’s purpose? Are they answering his call to do good while doing well?
So, how did he respond?
Thanks to good reporting by The Detroit Free Press, we can read the message he sent last week to all Ford employees. I believe it is an excellent example of responding to activist employees with the appropriate levels of respect, reason and resolve. He concludes that Ford can, “Continue to be a powerful voice for Black Lives Matter, holding ourselves accountable for significant change, while also continuing to help keep communities safe by producing Police Interceptors and partnering with law enforcement in new ways to strongly support the safety for all members of society.” Here are additional excerpts from his response:
The issues plaguing police credibility have nothing to do with the vehicles they’re driving. In fact, as we imagine the future power of our connected vehicles, smarter Ford vehicles can be used to not only improve officers’ ability to protect and serve, but also provide data that can make police safer and more accountable.
By taking away our Police interceptors, we would be doing harm to their safety and making it harder for them to do their job. Again, this is why, given our insights, new capabilities and leadership, I believe these unfortunate circumstances present Ford with an even greater opportunity to not only innovate new solutions but leverage our unique position to support the dialogue and reform needed to create safer communities for all.
I do appreciate people speaking their mind to me on this issue — it helped me generate this note to explain why we are continuing our commitment to police forces all over the world in our trusted products.
RESPECT: We hear you and have fully considered your concerns.
REASON: Our products empower police forces to do their difficult jobs in a fairer, more effective way. We are part of the solution, not the problem.
RESOLVE: Consistent with our purpose and history, we will continue to proudly manufacture the most preferred professional vehicles for police forces across the country.
Activist employees are a fact of corporate life. Discouraging engagement in an environment demanding that companies confront societal ills will not work. The most talented CEOs, like Jim Hackett, and management teams will be able to channel this energy — even when presented in a threatening manner — in a constructive way.
Responding to employee activism with respect, reason and resolve will prevent challenges from exploding into crises.