When Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, a former aide to President George W. Bush who joined Facebook in 2011, decided to sit two rows behind his longtime friend Judge Brett Kavanaugh as he testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the seasoned Republican operative surely expected someone would notice. His colleagues back in Menlo Park sure did. Since the hearing, hundreds of Facebook employees have expressed objection within the company over Kaplan’s public show of support of Kavanuagh—so much so that it’s caused a firestorm within Facebook that the company is struggling to contain.
According to reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, equivocating internal responses from Facebook’s top brass have only fanned the flames. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, reportedly told employees that Kaplan didn’t violate any company policies, though appearing in the hearing room is not a move he would have made. Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Sandberg replied to an internal company thread on Kaplan’s appearance that has garnered hundreds of comments, saying that she spoke with him about why “it was a mistake for him to attend given his role in the company.” They were responding to—but hardly allaying—the shock and outrage that Facebook employees were expressing after seeing one of their executives show up in support of an accused sexual assaulter’s confirmation during a time of public pain for women across the country.
But it was an internal statement, obtained by the New York Times, from longtime Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth that put what may have been implied in Sandberg and Zuckerberg’s statements most bluntly: “If you need to change teams, companies or careers to make sure your day-to-day life matches your passions, we will be sad to see you go, but we will understand. We will support you with any path you choose. But it is your responsibility to choose a path, not that of the company you work for.” Whether or not Bosworth’s C-suite peers agree with him, he’s right that this moment represents something of a crossroads. Tech workers have become ever more vocal over the last two years in speaking out against their employers’ interactions with the Trump administration (particularly on issues like immigration, espionage, and defense). And few personal acts that take place in the public glare can escape the politics of our moment. Now those facts are coming into conflict in Facebook’s backyard.
In some ways, the uproar within Facebook exposes a naiveté on the part of some employees, who may feel their work is still making the world a better, tighter-knit place, but who also should know by now that they’re working for a global targeted advertising company. Facebook needs to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, which means collaborating with political figures that some employees may find troubling or even abhorrent. This is especially true at a moment when politicians in both parties have found reasons—both fair and unfair—to scrutinize Facebook. So of course it will hire right-leaning operatives like Joel Kaplan—and of course Kaplan will have personal relationships with people like Kavanaugh.
But the issue clearly doesn’t end there, as Facebook is learning.
The employee activism within tech companies that’s been on the rise over the past year has been a heartening development. There was the petition against Google’s work helping to build A.I. for drones with the Pentagon, which ultimately led the company to drop the contract. Hundreds of Microsoft employees signed a letter to the company leadership in protest of its contracts with Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement during the height of the public outrage over the Trump administration’s family separation policy. It was only last year that Zuckerberg said that Facebook, for all its problems, ultimately aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” This may still be the goal, but it’s becoming clear that bringing the world closer together, for Facebook, depends on making gobs of money, and doing that means staying on the good side of Congress.
But Facebook also needs a workforce, which is why Boswell’s admonishment for employees to grow up won’t help. If Facebook can’t recruit—if it becomes known as a workplace that’s insensitive to workers, workers who may have seen echoes of their own lives in Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford’s heartfelt testimony—it also can’t do its job. If prospective workers conclude that the better world that Facebook wants to build is one where accusations of sexual assault are dismissed, they may decided that’s a world they no longer want to build.