Over the past 24 hours, top executives at Apple, eBay, Box, LinkedIn, and Microsoft have all sent company-wide memos urging employees to try to move forward, and expressing the belief that people are inherently good. Others, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have posted public statements about having to find new ways to work together. It’s the kind of messaging that a company leader would send after a natural disaster, an attack on the nation, or a looming crisis within the company.
Only this time, the looming crisis is the president-elect.
The fact that CEOs are compelled to communicate with employees following this year’s election shows how rattled Silicon Valley is. It’s been an "emotionally-charged election," as eBay’s Devin Wenig wrote, an "emotional roller coaster of toxic rhetoric" according to Box’s Aaron Levie, the aftermath of which is "leaving many of you with strong feelings," as Apple’s Tim Cook wrote. LinkedIn's Jeff Weiner wrote that "polarization and open hostility was sustained for so long that people with opposing views became more caricature than actual human beings."
The kind of messaging you'd expect to see after a natural disaster or crisis within the company
Sure, CEOs have congratulated president-elects before, and are doing that now. They’ve marked momentous and historic occasions with tweets and letters and opinion pieces. But this is different. This time, a presidential candidate has run a divisive campaign that simultaneously appealed to working-class voters and alienated many others who felt — who still feel — threatened by the racist, misogynistic, and authoritarian views he has expressed.
More pointedly for Silicon Valley, Donald Trump’s jabs at the tech industry have often been antagonistic. He called for a boycott of Apple products over the company’s dispute with the FBI in the wake of the San Bernardino tragedy, has accused social media companies of burying news about Hillary Clinton, has called out tech companies for moving jobs overseas, and has taken an overt anti-immigration stance, a stark contrast to the tech sector’s embrace of high-skill visa programs that bring in foreign talent. (It’s also possible — and perhaps likely — that some of Trump’s policies could be beneficial to tech companies, like a so-called tax holiday for the money companies have been hoarding overseas.)
Arguably, these notes from top executives to their thousands of employees might have held more weight if they were sent out before the election, not as responses to an outcome. But doing so might have alienated employees, or carried the tone of telling them who to vote for. Some CEOs may have been concerned that vocalizing their thoughts around a contentious election would have impacted their business, although the particular irony of that will now be determined by how a Trump presidency affects the broader economy.
Silicon Valley was caught flat-footed and open-mouthed in the wake of a traumatizing election season
Even if they had expressed these thoughts beforehand, it still might not have mattered: Silicon Valley was, and still is, in its own echo chamber, caught flat-footed and open-mouthed in the wake of a traumatizing election season; building cool new products for people every day but having underestimated the extent to which people were willing to vote for a productized presidential candidate, one who at some level rejects their techno-utopianism.
The notes being shared so far carry hopeful tones. Box CEO Levie reiterated the company’s values of "openness and inclusion." Apple’s Cook said the company’s "North Star hasn’t changed," and also included an inspiring quote from Martin Luther King Jr. eBay’s Wenig said to "stay focused." CEOs have a particular interest in keeping employees motivated to do work, and in offering the support that enable employees to do this. All of us, tech employees or otherwise, have to wake up, get out of bed, and go about our days.
But it’s the subtext and the context that are most meaningful: the fact that they’re writing these letters in the first place. They want to remind people that their workplaces are diverse, and that they should show mutual respect for each other. They’re asking them to work together in the spirit of generosity. They now feel compelled to tell their employees to just be kind to each other. Please, let’s be decent to one another. This election season has brought us all to this point, whether in Silicon Valley, or anywhere else.