Few things spread across the internet as quickly—or solicit criticism as swiftly—as viral videos of upset CEOs.
Recent examples include Andi Owen, president and CEO of MillerKnoll, whose leaked video berating employees for asking about their bonuses made the rounds this week. “Don’t ask about, What are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus? Get the damn $26 million,” says Owen, apparently attempting to motivate her team to reach a corporate goal. “I had an old boss who said to me one time, ‘You can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there.’ So people, leave Pity City!”
An even more extreme example is James Clarke, CEO of Clearlink, who last week accused 30 employees of not opening their laptops in the past month, suggested employees were secretly working multiple jobs and could increase productivity to “30 to 50 times our normal production” using artificial intelligence, and celebrated an employee who sold their dog in order to accommodate Clarke’s new work-from-office policy.
“In these town halls, I alone have been compared to a convicted Wall Street felon,” said Clarke, referencing Gordon Gekko, the antagonist of Wall Street. “I took it and I listened and I was kind and I responded with kindness—but no more. You have misinterpreted my kindness for weakness. You have continued to do so, and it will stop.”
Clarke has since filed a copyright complaint against YouTube to have the video removed, though it remains on Vice’s website. (Fast Company reached out to Clearlink for comment but did not immediately receive a response.)
Of course, these aren’t the first CEOs to embarrass themselves on camera (remember the Better.com CEO, Vishal Garg, or Braden Wallake, CEO of HyperSocial, who made headlines for crying after laying off workers?). Nor are they the first leaders to express frustration at their employees. But why does it seem like there’s a new leaked video of a CEO having a meltdown each week?
Fast Company spoke with workers who have recently witnessed these kinds of outbursts from their bosses—and with experts—about why some leaders are lashing out right now, specifically over returning to the office and productivity.
What workers say
Jacob, who we are identifying only by a first name to preserve anonymity, started a job in April 2021 as a graphic designer in Washington, D.C. During the interview process, he emphasized that he was concerned about the pandemic and that he was looking for a job where he wouldn’t need to work in an office. Hiring managers assured Jacob the organization would not return to the office until 2022.
After he was hired, workers were informed that everyone would be expected to work from the office three times per week by June 2021. Jacob discussed the issue with his manager and CEO and was allowed to continue working from home until COVID-19 rates decreased. The week before Jacob planned to return to the office, he received an unscheduled call from his CEO.
“She started berating me and yelling at me. She told me I was ‘ungrateful’ and ‘taking advantage of her kindness,’” he says. “I tried to tell her as calmly as I could that I intended on coming back in the next week . . . but she didn’t care and just kept going off about how I was not ‘grateful enough’ for ‘all she has done for me.’”
He continues, “It was like she just wanted me to get on my knees and grovel and apologize to her, which of course I was not going to do. I stayed as calm as I could and stood up for myself, but as soon as the call was over, I had a panic attack.”
In the following months, Jacob says the CEO did not work from the office full time and that there were several COVID-19 outbreaks among workers.
The wave of recorded outbursts from CEOs is often “about control,” says Jacob. “That’s definitely how it felt in my instance. It felt like she just wanted to be able to watch over everyone and just be in control of us. It feels like something about the freedom and flexibility that remote work gives employees somehow makes the people in charge feel threatened.”
Keri, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, works for a small design firm in New York. She says the firm’s founder made employees work from their Manhattan office throughout the pandemic but had a meltdown in the office after giving workers the week off between Christmas and New Year’s.
“He had a full-blown temper tantrum,” she says. “He gave us the week off and didn’t see us physically working with his eyeballs—meanwhile we were replying to emails, and I was taking all his phone calls. He came into our Monday morning meeting, and he just exploded at us. He was like, ‘All you guys do is ask for things from me, and I never get anything in return. And so for the next year, nobody ask anything of me.’”
She remembers that her boss “dramatically” raised his voice, crossed his arms, and refused to make eye contact. “I was trying to make eye contact with him,” says Keri. “I wanted him to realize that he was being absurd for yelling at us as humans, but he never looked up. That was really strange.”
What experts say
Jennifer Lewi is an executive coach who helps leaders understand their values and troubleshoot difficult situations. She says that while leaders are often well-intentioned, many are “out of touch” and are upset that workers won’t return to doing things like they were done pre-pandemic.
Some CEOs are thinking, “‘But they used to do this,’” says Lewi. “‘They used to come in five days a week. Why are they complaining about three?’ I try to help them see that the world has changed.”
Lewi has noticed that CEOs are more likely to express these kinds of frustration than other leaders are.
“The top level is extremely frustrated. . . . I’m definitely seeing that from the CEOs,” she says. “I think workers at the VP level and the manager level are more in touch on a day-to-day basis with the average employee.”
Lewi references the video of Clarke, who’s viral comments included arguing that women working full time and being a primary caregiver was “neither fair to your employer nor fair to those children.” She says, “You could see how out of touch James Clarke was when he said, ‘It’s hard for a single woman to also be a caregiver and work.’ I mean, how out of touch is that? If they’re good managers, they empathize with the people who work for them.”
Over the past several decades, the CEO-to-worker pay gap has expanded. Most recent figures suggest that S&P 500 CEOs averaged $18.3 million in compensation for 2021—324 times the median worker’s pay. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that some are not in tune with the economic realities, nor the working conditions of the average worker.
“We shouldn’t generalize about all CEOs. There are a lot of them who are not making the news who are doing a great job,” says Lewi. “These guys [are] making everybody look bad.”
A massive tug of war
The tension between workers and CEOs is part of “a massive tug of war” and an economy-wide “renegotiation,” says Joe Galvin, chief research officer of Vistage, which provides executive coaching and peer advisory groups for CEOs and business owners.
“COVID changed everything,” he says. “We all looked in the mirror and rethought what our purpose and priorities are and, Why are we doing this? That’s reset on the workforce.”
Galvin suggests that because of a talent shortage, and because of the pandemic, workers have gained power, transparency, and flexibility. He argues that tools like Glassdoor and LinkedIn make it easier to identify, and work for, companies that align with their values.
“The pandemic hit and recovered in the middle of what was an existing talent war. There was already a high demand for talent pre-pandemic, and as we bounced out of that, that demand accelerated even more. And workers now have greater options, greater flexibility,” says Galvin. “This transparency is unbelievable. What it means is that workers have the power.”
(Though to be sure, given economic stressors such as rising inflation, high-profile layoffs, and rising-wealth inequality, many workers do not feel particularly empowered.)
Additionally, many leaders are worried about an economic slowdown. A recent Vistage survey of 1,400 CEOs found that 96% are concerned about a potential recession affecting their business, with 49% of those reporting moderate or extreme concern. Plus, many executives express fears about the role of AI affecting the future of their businesses.
We haven’t seen the end of these viral CEO videos, says Lewi. “In this day and age, every CEO has to understand that what they’re saying is going to be recorded,” she says. “Maybe [CEOs] were always tone-deaf, but you never had the viral sensation that you have now. And employees have the [power] to be able to put things out there.”