Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella had a huge “oops” moment at an event Thursday celebrating women in computing.
When asked by Microsoft board member and Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe to share his advice for women uncomfortable with asking for a raise, he said that some of the most influential advice he’s gotten was to have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Not asking for a raise, Nadella said, is “good karma. It’ll come back.”
The Internet rightly howled in protest. Klawe herself disagreed with the CEO, sharing her advice that women should do their homework first and role-play before negotiating. The audience broke out in applause at her alternate response.
By Friday morning, Nadella had apologized for the remarks, calling them “inarticulate” in a tweet and issuing a statement to employees that said his remarks were “completely wrong.” He wrote: “Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap.”
Here’s the thing, though: Nadella’s original remarks may be especially disturbing to women, who disproportionately face the consequences of not asking for a raise. But, really, they should be unsettling to all employees. Trust the system? The social contract with corporations has long been broken. The idea that if you do good work, the company will take care of you sounds like a joke to many American workers. Especially in recent years, they’ve learned that stagnant wages, recurring layoffs and few opportunities for career growth have all too often become the status quo.
Employees have also come to believe that corporations give them as little as they can get away with. That may not be true everywhere — some generous companies shower employees with perks and amply reward top performers. But it’s a suspicion grounded in some truth: According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers’ share of corporate income in 2013 fell to its lowest point since 1950.
When Nadella said in his original remarks that someone who doesn’t ask for a raise is “the kind of person I want to trust” and “the kind of person I want to really give more responsibility to,” he seemed to say, in essence, that if you put your head down and work hard, the rewards will come. That may have been true at one point, and may still be true in some places, but it largely feels out of step with reality. Too many employees have watched outspoken colleagues get promoted, some of their best co-workers get laid off, and talented people get left behind if they remain quiet.
Nadella later addressed this in his email to employees, saying “if you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.” But be warned: He did originally say it might mess with your karma.
Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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