Marissa Mayer's Dirty Wal-Mart Connection

Marissa Mayer has been the president and CEO of Yahoo! for a little more than year, charged with the task of making Yahoo! relevant, profitable, and a revived industry newsmaker. And boy has she done just that.

The story of Marissa Mayer has hit the web, and like many CEOs of big-name corporations, she had made controversial headlines. Mayer was graciously profiled in Vogue magazine and pictured in ways you won’t see Tim Cook in anytime soon (but that’s not where I’m going with this). Mayer, in un-Sandberg like fashion, has distanced herself from the term “feminist” in the PBS series Makers, citing its negative connotations, and created an outpouring of opinions left and right. But what she has yet to distance herself from is her powerful seat on Walmart’s Board of Directors — a connection that has yet to be mentioned amidst the discussion and glowing Vogue portrait — and the slew of misdoings that come with that title.

Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, has had its fair share of unethical practices well documented and is the poster child for corrupt big business (for what it’s worth, it even has its own Wikipedia page titled “Criticisms of Walmart”). Mayer has not been immune to these controversies.

What has yet to be mentioned is Mayer’s consistent refusal to engage with Walmart workers who wish to discuss the company’s “illegal retaliation against associates who speak out for improved wages and working conditions,” according to advocacy/whistleblower group Walmart1percent.org. Several Walmart workers proceeded to stage a sit-in at Yahoo headquarters on June 24 and were subsequently arrested. The same workers addressed Mayer at the Yahoo shareholder meeting the very next day, where Mayer yet again declined, raising the question of whether her position at Walmart is interfering with her Yahoo affairs.

Mayer’s silence on important issues is not new. Her response to the public backlash over her decision to end Yahoo’s telecommuting from home policy was to “let it blow over.” In April, more than a month later, at the Great Place to Work conference, she eventually addressed the elephant in the room. Perhaps there is hope she’ll come around to the concerns of Walmart workers.

Granted the best time to discuss Walmart matters is not at Mayer's daytime job at Yahoo, but her refusal to even hear out the pleas of the Walmart workers (who surely targeted Mayer because of her high profile) raises concerns over her treatment of workers and workplace conditions. The Walmart fiasco doesn't really affect Yahoo — it just adds to a general distrust of big business and confirms a default setting in our minds to think of big business as amoral. 

Here lies an interesting and important conflict: Mayer, like many other public faces of the tech industry, has been set up as as a stylish whiz who tries to bring both tech innovation and human element to the company (although her PR campaign doesn't seem to have gotten her the same kind of friendly aura as, say, Steve Jobs). Unfortunately, Mayer is ultimately beholden to the stockholders and company higher-ups, not to the workers on the lowest rung. She is a complicated character, like any real person, who must delicately balance her roles as chief executive, mother, female leader, and director of a corporate giant with a history of mistreatment and abuse. However, her salary (at least $71 million through 2017) and responsibility demand great vision, strong leadership, and good judgment. This is part of her job. 

Mayer has made swift changes at Yahoo since taking over. She has downsized staff by 1,000 employees since her start last July (17% decrease overall at the end of 2012), acquired Tumblr for $1.1 billion, banned telecommuting (working from home), installed quarterly worker reviews, doubled biological maternity leave from eight weeks to 16 weeks (partners and non-biological parents still receive 8 weeks), and added free food and iPhones for the staff.

But hold on — there are more contradictions here. Mayer and Yahoo have also been criticized for backing Walmart-style politics by supporting FWD.us and The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a political lobbying organization with strong ties to the Walton family that has garnered much public outcry for its secrecy and its positions: anti-environment, climate-change denial, support for Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law (the one where they ask for your papers if you’re brown), and support for “Stand Your Ground” legislation, among many others. Yahoo has yet to publicly disaffiliate with ALEC, something that Walmart and 48 other companies have already done. Pretty confusing given Mayer's personal reputation as a liberal and major supporter of President Obama.

It's not a surprise to see a CEO with confusing positions and contradicting actions. If you read Mayer's Vogue portrait, there’s even more to be confused about — her tilt toward her social issues, personal ambition, and Vogue’s portrayal of the CEO of a huge company as an “underdog,” given her background.

One thing is clear though: Yahoo is doing much better since her arrival. She’s surely one to watch.