Have CEOs Reached the Boiling Point?

What’s changed recently that has made some CEOs more blunt with their own employees.

CEOs criticizing their workforce was supposed to be a thing of the past. These days bosses are encouraged to be more Ted Lasso than Don Draper.

But over the last few weeks, videos have emerged of CEOs questioning the loyalty of their employees, calling them entitled, and threatening layoffs and firings if productivity doesn’t increase. Many of these boss-to-workforce chats weren’t meant for public consumption, but have been shared by disillusioned workers. At the same time, CEOs have been ardent in demanding their workers return to the office, stop complaining about the size of their bonuses, and not join unions.

Experts say the spate of blunt public CEO comments—combined with many others made privately—suggests some leaders are sensing an opportunity to take back some of the leverage they lost over the past couple of years of widespread quitting and high salary demands. “Leaders have been upset that they aren’t in the driver’s seat,” says Maria Amato, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. At the same time, they have been facing the pressures of a tough economy, including having to lay off portions of their workforce. “Some executives are just exhausted,” says Sharon Egilinsky, a senior leader for Korn Ferry’s ESG and Sustainability Solutions practice.

Many leaders adopted a more empathetic approach during the COVID-19 pandemic and the labor shortages that followed. Great flexibility was granted to employees, as were enormous salaries. Leaders who might have lashed out held their tongues, for the most part, but the world has changed since. Productivity, as measured by US government statistics, has been falling for the last several months, while businesses across industries have seen their profit margins shrink. Many bosses once tolerated remote work, but now see some employees who use it as shirking their job responsibilities. “In their minds, they can bring everyone back, we can all go back to pre-pandemic life, and everything will be fine,” says Cindy Comisky, a Korn Ferry executive senior partner in the firm’s Human Resources practice.

Some strong CEO comments have come during recent open employee gatherings that experts say should have been staged better. There’s nothing wrong with speaking directly and succinctly to employees about issues around performance and productivity, experts say. But it’s important to set new expectations without expressing frustration, says Richard Marshall, Korn Ferry’s global managing director in the firm’s Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations Center of Expertise. In such gatherings, leaders should highlight the data that shows that workers need to change their behaviors.

What’s more, before talking to big groups of employees, leaders should run their message—and its tone—past leaders in human resources, corporate communications, and legal. “Gut-check it before it’s unleashed on a town hall or Twitter,” Marshall says. “You can’t wear your heart on your sleeve on this—it doesn’t do anyone any good.”


For more information, contact Korn Ferry's Board & CEO Services practice.