A leaked video made Clearlink CEO James Clarke a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons. In an interview with Forbes, he reflects on how it turned out.
By Diane Brady, Forbes Staff
he frustration was palpable in the tone of his voice, the tightness of his lips, the way he clenched his teeth and looked off camera while recounting the pain they’d put him through. Almost 15 months after James Clarke returned as CEO of Clearlink, a company he’d created in 2001 and sold a decade later, his enthusiasm had morphed into exasperation. He felt that too many staffers were slacking off at home. In a video call with employees, he said that about 30 of them—all working remote—hadn’t even opened their computers in a month.
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He’d decided it was time to talk tough. On April 3, 2021, Clarke announced that employees living within 50 miles of the digital marketing company’s Draper, Utah headquarters would now have to come in to the office four days a week. When people pushed back, he held a town-hall meeting via Zoom to reinforce the policy shift in no uncertain terms. Said Clarke: “You’ve misinterpreted my kindness for weakness.”
But an edited video clip that was posted to Reddit made him look unkind, if not outright heartless. In it, Clarke praised his own work ethic while railing against employees taking care of kids during work hours. He even appeared to praise a colleague who “went out and sold their family dog” upon getting the return-to-office mandate.
The result was a public relations nightmare that made Clarke a target of harassment and a symbol of bosses determined to destroy the promise of remote work. With surveys pointing to a disconnect between people wanting to work from home and managers who wanted them back in the office, Clarke’s frustration-fueled diatribe was fodder for those looking to prove that tone-deaf leaders were acting on emotions, not logic. (Studies about remote work’s impact are mixed, with growing evidence that management practices matter more than where people work,)
In an interview with Forbes (see above) and follow-up exchanges, Clarke talked about the outcome of his actions, good and bad. The good part, he says, is that 100% of local workers are now coming into the office four days a week and tell him their mental health has been dramatically boosted in the process. Moreover, he noted in a recent email, “we finished 2023 with record earnings, nearly doubling what the company had done in 2021 prior to our turnaround efforts which started exactly two years ago. “
Bur the blowback from the viral video was devastating, putting his company and even his family in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. He faced threats of violence and worried about his children’s safety. It also forced him to look in the mirror to recognize how badly he’d conveyed his message. His convoluted commentary about the pressure on primary caregivers, for example, made him sound like a fool who didn’t support working parents. “No one should have to make a choice of having children or having a job … that was not my intention at all. I failed.”
About That Dog
But nothing sounded more callous, and frankly comical, than his comment about the colleague who sold their dog, He’d been trying to acknowledge that returning to the office did mean making some difficult choices. On reflection, he notes, “Saying I “honor” this as I spoke about one’s dog, while also saying that it broke my heart was silly, insensitive even, and it didn’t tell the full story.”
The woman, who was promotd to vice president after coming back to the office four days a week, had been trying to “rehome” one of her two dogs when Clark’s missive came down. “Returning to office gave her the courage to act as the dog had bitten children and ruined carpets,” he explains.
An ‘Evolved’ CEO
The biggest change, he says, is in his own management style. The blistering blowback, internally and externally, forced him to have a lot of tough conversations about flexibility and what seemed like an inflexible manner. It helped him become more empathetic and a better leader.
“I’m different today,” he notes. “I hope I’m an ‘evolved CEO’ adapted to this new day.”
That said, he’s still convinced that getting people back to the office was the right thing to do, for those who were able to do it. “For our businesses in crisis, turning around at that moment, we needed that time of return to office,” he notes. Tomorrow may be different. “Flexibility—our peoples’ and my own—is here to stay.”