Apr 22, 2023 - Economy

Bad bosses go viral

Illustration of a business man being crushed by a large briefcase.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Several business leaders went viral this week after their attempts at encouragement were received by employees as vitriolic and tone deaf.

Why it matters: Challenging economic times have presented an opportunity for CEOs to unite and motivate their employee base, but many are cracking under the pressure.

Details: During a virtual employee town hall, CEO Andi Owen dodged questions about the status of bonuses and told staff to "leave pity city" and get back to work.

  • The clip went viral, prompting Owen to issue an apology to employees. "I feel terrible that my rallying cry seemed insensitive,” she reportedly said.
  • ClearLink CEO James Clarke faced similar backlash after his comments at a virtual employee town hall leaked. He was caught applauding employees for making extreme personal sacrifices — like selling a family dog — in order to return to the office full time.
  • Clarke also questioned working parents' productivity and accused employees of quiet quitting or taking on multiple side gigs.
  • And Boston-based chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch is under fire for her alleged workplace conduct and treatment of employees.

The big picture: In recent years, business leaders have touted employees as their greatest asset and most critical audience — but their communications say otherwise.

  • In response, employees are disengaging or quitting en-masse, which can directly impact a company's bottom line.

“One reason for the growing dissatisfaction might be that company priorities are disproportionately focused on the customer, while shortchanging the employees," writes Columbia Business School professor Stephan Meier.

  • "Every company leader at every level, whether they manage two people or a team of 5,000, should consider how they think about customers and start applying that approach to how they treat employees.”

By the numbers: Columbia Business School researchers analyzed earnings call transcripts and found "a clear and overwhelming bias for customers compared to employees."

  • According to the study, executives talk about customers 10 times more often than employees.
  • When they do discuss employees, they are almost 50% more likely to use prevention-focus words — like “anxious,” “defend,” “pain,” and “threat” — compared to when they discuss customers.

What they're saying: “In today’s digital age, internal and external communications are one and the same," Michael Grimm, vice president at Reputation Partners, tells Axios.

  • "Language and behavior that reflect a broken culture have significant reputational ramifications which can deter consumers or clients and dissuade future employees from considering joining the team.”

Go Deeper: Why leaders are bad communicators.

Go deeper