The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This CEO posted a crying selfie on LinkedIn. It didn’t go over well.

Braden Wallake wanted to be honest about the tough parts of being a CEO. Many online called the post ‘tone deaf.’

HyperSocial CEO Braden Wallake (Braden Wallake)
4 min

If he had thought about it longer, Braden Wallake might not have posted a picture of himself crying on LinkedIn.

But Wallake, the 32-year-old chief executive of HyperSocial, a marketing start-up, had just laid off employees for the first time, he said in an interview with The Washington Post. He had tried to avoid making his small team smaller. He had cut his paycheck and made other business adjustments. In the end, though, he had decided to let two of his 17 employees go.

“This will be the most vulnerable thing I’ll ever share,” he began, in a long post paired with a photo of himself with tears visible. Wallake wanted to own his mistakes, he said, and reach out to other business owners who might be “feeling the pain” behind their tough decisions. He wanted them to feel less alone.

“I just want people to see,” he wrote, “that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted and doesn’t care when he/she have to lay people off.”

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The post quickly went viral on LinkedIn and beyond, as many accused Wallake of being insensitive and “cringe.” With more than 68,000 workers in tech laid off so far in 2022, many read Wallake’s post as privileging the chief executive’s pain over that of the employees being let go.

“This does comes across as tone-deaf, self indulgent and a tad inauthentic,” one commenter said. “Maybe you could have made the post about the people your decisions have impacted, rather than about yourself?”

“If my boss had posted a picture of themselves crying about having to lay me off with zero apologies I would be [angry],” said another.

But comments and messages of support also trickled in from fellow executives and others who praised him for showing vulnerability and humanity.

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“Thank you for having shared that and having restored my faith in the business world again,” one DM read.

“When I see this post — I see a guy who is literally just trying his best,” said one commenter. “This guy cares about his employees — he decided to process some of this online. Could he have tagged the employees and said how great they were — sure, but did he expect this post to blow up like this? Probably not.”

Wallake did not. Once he realized what was happening, he reached out to the two employees affected to show them the post and let them know that it wasn’t meant to make his “tough journey” seem worse than theirs. He shared about the job opportunities the post was already generating. Both are still taking time to think about their next steps, he said.

As cracks form in the economy, tech start-ups have been among the first and hardest hit, with widespread layoffs wracking the industry in recent months. The industry has served as a sort of canary in the coal mine for slowing growth, with executives such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google’s Sundar Pichai among early voices of recession fears.

Other executives have made headlines for their approach to layoffs. Vishal Garg, chief executive of online mortgage company, sparked ire after he laid off 900 employees in December in a Zoom call lasting less than three minutes.

“If you’re on this call, you’re part of the unlucky group that’s being laid off,” Garg announced over Zoom, according to reporting from National Mortgage Professional. “Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.”

Days later, Garg penned a letter apologizing to his staff, acknowledging he had “embarrassed” them.

“I own the decision to do the layoffs, but in communicating it I blundered the execution,” Garg wrote. “I realize that the way I communicated this news made a difficult situation worse.”

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Wallake said he knows that the public has an image of wealthy executives that “are doing layoffs just to pad their own pockets.” He lives in a van with his girlfriend, who is also his business partner, and their dog, Roscoe. In his LinkedIn profile, he notes that he’s a “5x college dropout.”

In some ways, Wallake said, his post was meant to push back against the idea that chief executives are supposed to “be brave.”

“Being a business owner and letting people go, I know it’s not fun on the other end,” he continued, “but we’re human, too, and we feel like we’re losing a friend.”