Most CEO letters are greeted by employees with a yawn. But after IBM CEO Ginni Rometty wrote a public letter to president-elect Donald Trump, one of her employees decided to quit in response, publishing a letter of her own online to describe why she did it.
Elizabeth Wood, until recently a senior content strategist at IBM, published an “open letter to my boss, IBM CEO Ms. Ginni Rometty” last week in which she said she resigned because she felt the letter, dated Nov. 14, "offered the backing of IBM’s global workforce in support of his agenda." Wood, 31, wrote that the tech giant's recruitment materials suggest "the future of the company hinges on realizing an inclusive and welcoming culture, though you do not communicate this vision" within the letter Rometty wrote to Trump. Wood wrote to Rometty that "the president-elect has demonstrated contempt for immigrants, veterans, people with disabilities, Black, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ communities. These groups comprise a growing portion of the company you lead."
In Rometty's letter to Trump, she had offered ways for IBM to work with the new administration, saying "I know that you are committed to help America’s economy grow in ways that are good for all its people." She spoke about scaling up vocational "new collar" IT jobs, working on infrastructure projects that incorporate technology and artificial intelligence, as well as healthcare, tax reform, and the use of IBM technology to improve care for veterans. "As you prepare to take office as our new president, I hope the ideas I have offered in this letter represent ways that we can work together to achieve prosperity that is broadly shared in our society," Rometty wrote.
But she did not address the deeply divisive rhetoric from Trump's campaign or his supporters about issues such as undocumented immigration or a proposed ban on Muslim refugees — though, when she shared that letter with employees, she said in the accompanying email that IBM supports tolerance and diversity. IBM spokesman Edward Barbini said "the great majority of feedback from IBM employees has been very positive" but noted that the company, as a policy, does not otherwise comment on personnel matters. In her letter to Trump, Rometty also wrote that "in the years ahead there will be issues on which we agree, and issues on which we do not."
Few employees, of course, are likely to quit over a CEO's letter. Still, Wood's very public response is illustrative of the delicate and unusual situation many CEOs could find themselves in following this year's election outcome. In the aftermath of such a brutally divisive campaign, business leaders' public comments and traditional outreach to a new administration have come under greater scrutiny by their employees and customers. Remarks by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at a November conference sparked a boycott from some Trump supporters, while a comment by a New Balance executive prompted a backlash from the left.
A CEO, of course, must advocate for a company's business interests and opportunities. Yet at the same time, especially as businesses have touted their commitment to issues like diversity and gay rights in increasingly public ways — from political advocacy to sharing data about their own workforce — more employees are going to expect their bosses to speak out forcefully on those issues, no matter the forum. IBM, for instance, was one of the corporate signers of a letter from the Human Rights Campaign opposing North Carolina's so-called "bathroom bill," which dictates which restroom transgender people should use in government buildings and public schools.
Meanwhile, companies must also grapple with employees' ability to broadcast their dissatisfaction via online channels. Wood's letter was shared widely on social media, with some calling her decision "brave" or commending her "courage." Comments to her letter online were met with everything from praise to defense of Rometty's letter.
In an interview, Wood, who had worked for IBM for two years and whose mother was born in Cuba, said she would have liked Rometty to send "a more inclusivity-minded statement" to President-elect Trump, and that a mention of diversity and tolerance in an internal email was not enough. "To not acknowledge that in your first correspondence with someone who’s going to be in control when you have such a responsibility to your workforce to represent them," she said, was a "huge disservice."
Wood acknowledged that she had experienced frustrations of working in a company as large as IBM but said she had not been planning to leave the tech giant before seeing Rometty's letter. A writer and "content strategist," Wood also said she was aware her move had the potential to raise her profile; she has pinned the letter she wrote to the top of her LinkedIn profile and her Twitter feed.
Yet she also said she was aware of and had considered the risks her outspokenness could prompt when it comes to getting hired in the future. "I thought I would have a mark on my back," she said, making her "that mouthy strategist that speaks out." She said she intends to freelance and does not have another full-time job lined up.
A range of CEOs have written letters to employees in the aftermath of the election. JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon, for instance, wrote to his employees that "we have just been through one of the most contentious elections in memory, which can make it even harder to put our differences aside." Apple's Tim Cook quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and reminded employees that "our company is open to all . . . regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love."
Others have spoken directly in letters to the president-elect. Marriott International chief executive Arne Sorenson, for instance, had his own words of advice for Trump in a letter addressed to him. "While your Electoral College victory was solid, you should guard against the victor's curse: Don't convince yourself that your victory is a personal mandate that absolves you of the need to collaborate in governing. While millions voted for you because they agreed with your ideas, millions voted for you even though they agreed with only some of your ideas or because they didn't like the alternative. And, of course, many did not vote for you. Bring all those people along with you. Leadership is about listening and then convincing. It is not about mandating."