Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, and the limits of employee activism

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek speaks during a media event in New York, U.S., May 20, 2015.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek speaks during a media event in New York, U.S., May 20, 2015.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Spotify is the kind of workplace that encourages employees to share their thoughts on how the company is run. But CEO Daniel Ek’s latest response to the controversy over podcaster Joe Rogan is a reminder that when companies say they want employees to have a voice, that’s not a promise they’re going to listen.

Musician Neil Young’s recent decision to pull his music from Spotify over objections to covid misinformation on Rogan’s podcast has encouraged other artists to follow suit, igniting a wave of public scrutiny over the platform’s ties to Rogan. Spotify also announced yesterday that Rogan had agreed to remove dozens of podcast episodes in which he used racial slurs, and the podcaster apologized on Instagram for his use of the n-word.

In a Feb. 7 memo to employees, Ek acknowledged the concerns that workers have long expressed over Rogan’s podcast. “Not only are some of Joe Rogan’s comments incredibly hurtful—I want to make clear that they do not represent the values of this company,” he wrote. “I know this situation leaves many of you feeling drained, frustrated and unheard.”

But Ek also indicated that he has no intention of “silencing Joe.”

“We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope,” he wrote. “Looking at the issue more broadly, it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.”

The parallels between Spotify and Netflix

If Ek’s response to employees sounds familiar, it may be because Netflix leaders offered a similar one to employees who recently protested comedian Dave Chappelle’s special The Closer for jokes many perceived as transphobic.

Both Spotify and Netflix faced a lot of employee criticism for backing Rogan and Chappelle despite the apparent disconnect with the companies’ stated progressive values, with Netflix employees going so far as to stage a walkout. Both companies urge workers to be open and outspoken when they disagree with leadership decisions.

But in both cases, at least so far, company leadership acknowledged employee criticism but ultimately stuck by the controversial creators. Responding to Netflix employees last fall, co-CEO Ted Sarandos struck a similar tone to Ek, saying that the streaming giant’s goal is to create “programming for a diversity of tastes” and defending Chappelle’s right to “artistic freedom.”

Spotify’s partnership with Joe Rogan

Unlike Netflix, Spotify isn’t directly involved in the production of Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. But it does have a stake in the show, having struck a licensing agreement worth a reported $100 million in 2020 to make the podcast exclusive to Spotify. It’s Spotify’s most-popular show in 93 markets, according to Ek, helping to fuel the company’s efforts to expand in the podcast sector.

Rogan’s not so popular with some Spotify employees, however. In October 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that Spotify employees raised concerns during a town hall about comments Rogan had made about transgender people. That fall, employees also took to a public Slack channel called #ethics-club to flag a Rogan interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (whose podcast has itself been banned from Spotify for violating the company’s hate content rules). During the interview, Jones falsely claimed that a polio vaccine had caused 100% of recipients to get sick and suggested that masks weren’t effective in protecting people from covid, among other comments.

In response to employee discussions at the time, Spotify’s chief legal officer and head of global affairs Horacio Gutierrez circulated a memo to managers saying that employees could report concerns about content to the company’s “Trust & Safety” team. But, he added, “it’s important that they aren’t simply flagging a piece of content just because of something they’ve read online. It’s all too common that things are taken out of context.” Even as Gutierrez acknowledged employees’ concerns, he also seemed to dismiss them.

What can employee activism accomplish?

The reactions of top brass at Spotify and Netflix ultimately expose the limits of employee activism. Employee activism can certainly put pressure on companies to address issues with everything from internal discrimination to the spread of misinformation. But when there’s a lot of money on the line—as there is with both Rogan and Chappelle, both of whom have huge fan bases—employees may not have the leverage to change company policies.

Even when employees do effect change, there’s no guarantee that it will last. Google employees, for example, memorably stopped the company from working with the Pentagon on an artificial intelligence program back in 2018. But in fall 2021, Google announced that it was pursuing another contract with the Pentagon.

That’s not to say that workers should refrain from speaking out about their employers’ missteps, or that collective action is bound to fail. Far from it: In today’s tight talent market, employees can have a lot of sway. But as Spotify and Netflix show, employee activism is most powerful when companies are convinced they stand to lose more than their employees’ respect.