Hundreds of Wayfair employees and other protesters took to the streets in Boston, protesting the furniture retailer's alleged sale of beds to detention centers for migrant children. The company's weak response is a perfect lesson in how not to handle employee activism.

It all began with $200,000 worth of beds that employees say Wayfair has sold to BCFS, a nonprofit organization operating a detention center for 3,000 migrant children in Texas. The employees responded with a letter of protest--with 547 signatures--sent to Wayfair leadership. In the letter, they quote a statement from the United Nations: "Detention is never in the best interests of the child and always constitutes a child rights violation." The letter writers continue: "We believe that by selling these (or any) products to BCFS or similar contractors we are enabling this violation and complicit in furthering the inhumane actions of our government."

Wayfair's reaction was lackluster, to say the least. Part of it was an exceedingly bland letter to protesting employees that neither denied nor confirmed the sale to BCFS. After a lengthy preamble in which the company lavished praise on its "engaged team that is focused on impacting our world in meaningful and important ways," the letter went on to state leadership's position: "As a retailer, it is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate." The letter went on to say that such a policy was for the benefit of the company's employees and shareholders, and did not reflect agreement with the customers to which it sells.

In addition, according to a Vox report, company co-founder Steve Conine held a meeting with employees to address their concerns. Asked if the company would meet their demands to cease all dealings with BCFS and any other contractors operating migrant children detention centers, and also to create a code of ethics for B2B sales, Conine said he couldn't give the activist employees the answer they wanted to hear. He did say that the company would donate money ... somewhere. As long as it wasn't too seemingly political. "A lot of it was them not trying to commit to anything too specifically," one Wayfair employee who was present told Vox. Later on, the company said it would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross. The @WayfairWalkout Twitter account tweeted that this was good news--but noted that the Red Cross has absolutely nothing to do with the ICE detention centers.

Another employee who was present at the meeting with Conine told Vox that Wayfair employees in general were not impressed with his wishy-washy response. "If anything, we probably just gained a lot of people that we wouldn't have had otherwise," this employee said. And so the protest went forward, likely larger than it might have been if Wayfair had taken some sort of stand.

What walkout?

Publicly, the company has made no comment at all, to the press, on its website, or on its Twitter feed. The closest thing to a mention of the protest is a response to a customer who apparently asked to be removed from its mailing list--@Wayfair asked for the customer's email address so as to comply with the request. That one tweet has, at this counting, almost 3,000 responses. Most of them are from angry customers saying they won't buy from Wayfair again or even that they're abandoning their shopping carts right now. 

Note to Wayfair: If you've yourself gotten involved in the hottest hot-button issue of the day and your employees are walking out because of it, a $100,000 donation to an unrelated charity and a general "no comment" just won't cut it. Neither will bland statements about engaged employees and diversity of views. Neither will pretending to the public that the whole thing just doesn't exist.

There was no excuse for this mistake because Wayfair had plenty of good examples for how to respond to employee activism, if only its leaders had been watching the news. Google, for example, decided to pull its bid for a $10 billion Pentagon contract in response to employee protests. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, on the other hand, took a firm stand in response to a similar protest, telling CNN, "We made a principled decision that we're not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy." That may not have been what employee activists wanted to hear, but it was straightforward and transparent and didn't lead to a walkout. 

And then there was Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. Faced with employees protesting the company's work with the U.S. Border Patrol, Benioff established an internal group with employee representatives to help make decisions about who the company would and wouldn't sell to. On the basis of that group's recommendations, Salesforce's sales to the Border Patrol went ahead.

If only Wayfair had been willing to specifically address the question of selling beds to detention centers, it had some very good reasons for going ahead with those sales. For one thing, news reports of children sleeping on concrete floors prompted Congress to provide some funding to improve conditions, which is what led to the purchase employees protested. Wayfair could have made the powerful counter-argument that giving a detained child a bed instead of a floor to sleep on is a good thing, not a bad one. (Some Twitter users made that very point, as did BCFS when contacted by Vox.) Or it could have followed Benioff's lead and created an employee group to provide input on future sales.

Instead, Wayfair leadership's biggest goal is apparently to say as little as possible and try to avoid offending anyone. That might have worked in a different political climate, but not today. The result of that decision was a protest that was bigger and more high-profile than it might have been. 

If you're ever faced with employee activism, don't make the same mistake.