CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman’s “not racist” tweet about George Floyd and the coronavirus, and CrossFit’s subsequent lack of action, is a parable of a corporate compliance and ethics screw-up of massive proportions. It is proof that a damaged corporate culture has real costs.
Over the weekend, Glassman responded to a tweet by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) about the link between public health and racism by writing “It’s FLOYD-19”, referring to the man who was killed by a white police officer, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
He then went onto to explain: “Your failed model quarantined us and now you’re going to model a solution to racism? George Floyd’s brutal murder sparked riots nationally. Quarantine alone is ‘accompanied in every age and under all political regimes by an undercurrent of suspicion, distrust, and riots.’ Thanks!”
Inevitably, it did not go down well and within hours the best athletes in the sport were threatening to boycott the CrossFit Games unless there was a change in leadership. One of the organisation’s biggest sponsors, Reebok, cut ties completely. Where this intersects with corporate compliance and ethics is culture.
The compliance officer in any organisation struggles with the label of being a “no man”. Usually, the compliance department is made up of lawyers, but often the role is informally taken on by another manager, and their main purpose is to tell other staff when they are skirting with the law.
But if you visit any compliance conference, most talks are about how to get buy-in from senior management to create an ethical culture and accountability, so other employees want to – rather than being forced to – comply with legal and ethical practices. They call it “tone from the top” and it is less tangible than simply being law-abiding.
The compliance team are at pains to avoid becoming a box-ticking department dedicated to technically adhering to the law. By getting the leadership to think and behave ethically, they set an example by which all others in the company can model their behaviour.
And so, what behaviour should other CrossFit employees emulate?
To make the tweet worse, CrossFit broadcast a “pathetic” apology, this time via its official channels rather than Glassman’s private account. Now, they cannot blame a bad apple but have fully embraced Glassman’s view that his tweet was “not racist”. The CrossFit world has clamoured for him to stand down, and yet the rest of the leadership has remained silent since his non-apology.
CrossFit professes that community is at the core of the sport. But they have shown that at the corporate level, this is nothing more than words. When the founder and CEO alienates people of colour, the corporation doubles down.
So, where could this tone from the top trickle down and infect other parts of the sport? What about cheating or doping? Sure, CrossFit professes fair competition, but why should we believe they are taking their own words seriously and enacting proper drug testings? What else is a fallacy?
The lack of ethical tone from the top, and the rest of the leadership’s willingness to shy away from public condemnation, means every value they’ve ever professed to hold seems glib.
Even if these worries are baseless, it proves the importance of an ethical tone from the top for PR purposes alone. Once a question has been asked, it cannot be unasked.
But thankfully, there is a disconnect. The athletes are the voice of the sport. As individuals, rather than part of the corporation, they are distant enough not to be infected by this trickle down tone. They have stood up and called out Glassman and the rest of CrossFit Inc. at great personal cost.
Their adherence to the sport’s community ethics is commendable and doubly embarrassing for the sport’s leadership who have chickened out of any action.
Gyms are de-affiliating, top athletes are boycotting the sport and sponsors are fleeing. It is proof that intangible tone has tangible financial ramifications. It is time for the management in CrossFit to take a stance and actively shape its tone from the top.