In a virtual town hall last week, the CEO of a Utah-based digital marketing and technology company, who is forcing employees to return to the office, celebrated the sacrifice of a worker who had to sell the family dog as a result of his decisions. He also questioned the motives of those who disagreed, accusing some of quiet quitting, and waxed skeptical on the compatibility of working full time with serving as a primary caregiver to children.
The decision by Clearlink CEO James Clarke to mandate in-office work had come as a surprise to many workers, seeing as Clarke himself had said over email as recently as late October that he had “no plans” to mandate in-office work and some Clearlink employees had been hired with the understanding that the company was “remote-first.”
But “circumstances” had “changed,” the company told employees this month, as Clearlink, like many others, has struggled to adapt to a teetering economy and recently undergone a round of layoffs. To jumpstart the firm, Clarke sent a company-wide email on April 3 saying that people who live within 50 miles of the company’s new headquarters in Draper, Utah, would be required to come into the office four days a week, with limited exceptions, starting April 17. The decision, he wrote, was made to improve the company’s performance amid a “challenging” environment.
During a video meeting to explain the reasoning behind the changes, Clarke unleashed on his employees, saying he had deduced that some 30 employees had not opened their laptops for a month (the quiet quitters); wondering aloud if some remote employees were secretly working multiple jobs; and asking the company to increase productivity to “30 to 50 times our normal production” as a result of recent advances in artificial intelligence while also making reference to the “Judeo-Christian ethic” and noting, for unclear reasons, that he went to Oxford and Harvard.
All he was asking, he said, is that people come into the office and give their “blood, sweat, and tears” to the company. “I challenge any of you to outwork me, but you won’t,” he added.
In hopes of rallying the troops, Clarke took the time to pay special attention to one employee who had sold the family dog as a result of his decision, describing it as an example of the “sacrifices that are being made” and saying it broke his heart as someone who, he claimed, has been at the “head of the humanization of pets movement.”
Clarke also focused on concerns that the shift would cause undue harm to people who serve as primary caregivers for their children, who would have to pay for additional childcare. The CEO expressed skepticism that single and working mothers could meet company expectations while continuing to take care of their children, saying that while “it can be done … it adds so much stress to a working mother’s life that I would never want to put on anyone.”
Additionally, he said, it could be argued that having a full-time job and serving as a primary caregiver is “neither fair to your employer nor fair to those children.”
“Now, I don’t necessarily believe that,” he clarified. “But I do believe that only the rarest of full-time caregivers can also be productive and full-time employees at the same time.” He proceeded to say he believed the data would support this “in time,” though he then noted that data can be warped and manipulated to prove any one particular point.
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Clearlink spokesperson Layne Watson declined to answer specific questions about the company’s decision and communications, saying only that it was a matter of “internal Clearlink business” and that the return-to-office mandate would help the company achieve its “collective goals.”
“We look forward to having these team members join us at our new world-class Global Headquarters in Draper, UT and appreciate the efforts of all of our committed team members–which includes those who work in office and those who will continue to work remotely–as we accomplish our best work together,” Watson added.
Almost three months before the town hall, the Utah-based company had opened its new headquarters, which Clarke has referred to as “amazing,” “top-tier,” and “world class.” As recently as October 26, Clarke had said over email that “there are no plans to require anyone to work in the new Draper office or the St. Pete office,” even bolding the words for emphasis.
But in the video meeting, he admitted that he “perhaps” was “naive” in hoping that people would come anyway. “I thought those of you—all of you—would want to be in this world-class facility every single day. Alas, that’s not been the case,” he said in the meeting.
The CEO said he had seen improved “collaboration, productivity, and accountability” among those who had started to come in, and since the country had “moved out of the pandemic” he believed it was time for the shift.
In a company document further explaining the decision, Clearlink said it was a “permanent decision,” “not optional” and would not be revisited “unless specific needs for the business arise.” However, the company also noted that the mandate would only apply to the 35 percent of the workforce (“about 275 people”) that lived within the 50-mile radius of the company headquarters, as determined by a combination of employees’ on-file addresses and Google Maps.
The company added that the employees could not bypass the mandate by now moving outside of the radius, saying that would be “counterproductive to the purpose of this decision.”
Outside of special exceptions, those workers unwilling to come into the office would face “corrective action,” according to the document. “Leadership believes this is the best decision at this time to ensure the near and long-term success of the company,” Clearlink stated.
In the document, the company addressed a number of potential concerns, like why a phased approach was not taken (“the urgency to improve our business results accelerated the need to to have as many hands on deck as possible”); whether people who live as far away as 49 miles from the office will receive raises in order to live closer (“There is no requirement for employees to move closer to the office. As such, no additional compensation or reimbursement will be offered”); and whether the company would consider offering in-office daycare (“Given the recent business results, this is not something that can be considered at this time”). The company added it would not be reinstituting UberEats vouchers either.
The company indicated that it understood the mandate might anger employees who had started a job at Clearlink since the pandemic with the understanding that they would be allowed to work remotely, but that such understandings were no longer relevant in the new climate.
An edited video of Clarke’s remarks was soon uploaded to Reddit and YouTube, eliciting outrage online. “Who would want to work for someone like this?” one Reddit user asked. Said another, “If you work at clear link you should quit [sic].”
Clearlink successfully got the sites to take the video down, citing a copyright claim. But Motherboard was able to obtain a copy—which has since been reproduced online—as well as speak with two employees and obtain various emails, memos, and additional video materials.
Last year, Clarke returned to the company as CEO after selling the company a decade earlier and starting an investment firm. He had been inspired to start the company and become his own boss in 2001 after dealing with an “extremely difficult manager” in college, he has said.
In a column for the tech and business site Utah Business last year, Clarke wrote about the struggles of re-joining the company during the pandemic. He said he felt like an “outsider,” “some outside ‘Wall Street’ guy” and “a nobody who has to re-earn the respect of the people who make Clearlink the great company it is.” What made it worse, he wrote, was that everyone was working from home.
“Clearlink declared itself a virtual company, and we miss out on that tactile, real element that the best of business requires. Getting to know the current employees and trying to pivot and scale the business has been challenging in this virtual environment,” he wrote. “I believe that a combination of some virtual but primarily an in-person environment is what we really allow for the best of business—and the best of people—to operate.”
In the meeting this month, Clarke’s tone was substantially harsher. At one point, he seemed to lash out at the people who had controlled the company before he regained power, referring to one as a former “ski guide” and another as a former bank teller.
“That’s who you trusted,” he said.
He also leveled accusations at his own employees that seemed to have been building up inside him since he returned to the company, criticizing what he described as too many people’s “natural” willingness to “backbite or murmur or find fault or criticize.” He brought up “nonsense” questions and a lack of general “respect”; referred to some of his own employees as “critics or pundits” with no real answers; and proclaimed that diversity, equity, and inclusion “can only exist where you can respect and even revere the person who directly opposes your view or those of your chosen community.” (Clarke reportedly hosted a series of fundraisers for Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis in Utah last summer alongside other high-profile business leaders.)
“Many would argue that you are only the voice of your underserved community,” he said, presumably referring to employees who had said things that upset him. But, he added, “Many who have been the loudest voices are not representing their community at all”
“In these town halls, I alone have been compared to a convicted Wall Street felon. I’ve been criticized for my faith, where I went to college and it wasn’t at all about Harvard or Oxford, two universities of which I'm an alum, but were also founded and operated under the Judeo-Christian ethic,” he said. “The prejudice, contention, hypocrisy and unfairness of these statements made by many who remain at Clearlink were made by none who knew me.”
Clarke attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate. A separate video reviewed by Motherboard showed Clarke stating that the “convicted Wall Street felon” in question was Gordon Gekko, the antagonist of the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. It appears that such comments will no longer be tolerated.
“I took it and I listened and I was kind and I responded with kindness, but no more,” he said. “You have misinterpreted my kindness for weakness. You have continued to do so, and it will stop.”