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How corporate leaders can respond to employee activism

A woman holds up a sign during a demonstration by Wayfair employees protesting the company's sales of beds and furniture to U.S. border detention facilities, on Copley Plaza in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 26, 2019.
REUTERS/Faith Ninivaggi
Wayfair employees protest in Boston over the company's contract with US Customs and Border Patrol.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor

Published Last updated on

On a late September day in 2019, clients of the software company Chef found their products, which help companies manage their digital infrastructure, weren’t working. The glitch wasn’t an accident. Days before, Chef employees had learned via Twitter that the company had contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Protests on social media followed, culminating in programmer Seth Vargo removing a key piece of code from the sharing site GitHub, causing the software to be unusable for several hours.

It took the company’s leadership a few days to respond substantively to employees’ questions about its relationship with the agencies, which were being fiercely criticized at the time for their family separation policies. The answer: Chef would fulfill its contracts with ICE and CBP. “I do not believe that it is appropriate, practical, or within our mission to examine specific government projects with the purpose of selecting which US agencies we should or should not do business,” then-CEO Barry Crist wrote in a blog post.

“Contrary to Chef’s CEO’s publicly posted response, I do think it is the responsibility of businesses to evaluate how and for what purposes their software is being used, and to follow their moral compass,” Vargo, the engineer who removed the code from Github, told TechCrunch.

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