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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

We know there’s no crying in baseball thanks to Jimmy Dugan, the gruff fictional coach played by Tom Hanks in the 1992 comedy film A League of Their Own.

Now we know there’s no whining in business, at least not if you work at Netflix.

The streaming service’s chief executive officer Ted Sarandos channeled his inner Dugan last week, telling employees complaining about programming they found offensive that if they don’t like what the company does, they should leave.

Mr. Sarandos’s move reflects the growing pushback against employee grievances that has disrupted and distracted companies in recent years, and serves as a reminder that businesses are commercial enterprises – not platforms for partisan ax-grinding on social issues or support groups for hurt feelings.

The message behind Netflix’s hard line is clear: There is no shortage of outlets for employees to express themselves loudly and freely on social, political, religious or other matters – but the company’s workplace shouldn’t be one of them. And if they can’t abide that philosophy, there’s the door.

The Netflix controversy arose around complaints from employees that jokes made by the comic Dave Chappelle about transgender people in one of the service’s specials were offensive.

In a lengthy all-employee memo titled “Artistic Expression,” Mr. Sarandos countered protests by employees seeking to censor the programming, saying Netflix lets “viewers decide what’s appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices.”

“Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful,” the memo says. “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

Twitter employees surely heard Mr. Sarandos’s mic drop. Many have complained that the social-media company’s soon-to-be owner, Elon Musk, will do things with the platform they don’t like, such as eliminating partisan censorship practices that threaten free speech.

In a tweet following the release of Mr. Sarandos’s memo, Mr. Musk, whose pro-free speech and anti-woke sentiments are well documented, said simply: “Good move by @netflix.”

The founder of Tesla and SpaceX has been on a crusade against wokeness that has reached beyond his own companies. Earlier this year, after Netflix reported disappointing audience numbers, Mr. Musk publicly blamed the company’s culture for its performance problems.

“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” he said.

The Walt Disney Company’s chief executive officer Bob Chapek might also pay attention to what’s going on at Netflix.

He has been embroiled in a highly publicized dust-up with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis after caving in to pressure from a small group of employees who don’t like the state’s new Parental Rights in Education law.

Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its opponents, the new mandate prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity to schoolchildren from kindergarten to Grade 3.

Curiously, Mr. Chapek initially refused to weigh in on the discussion, saying Disney’s involvement in the debate would be “counterproductive,” a posture that seems aligned with the Netflix mindset on such issues. But the pressure from employees rose, and he waffled and eventually capitulated, apologizing to workers publicly and vowing to work to overturn the law.

In response, Mr. DeSantis moved quickly to strike down a 55-year-old agreement that granted the company tax breaks and special self-governing powers over its Disney World theme park and surrounding property near Orlando.

The tussle has put the issue at the centre of national commentary, with Mr. DeSantis warning Disney – the state’s largest employer – and others that if they are “woke” companies seeking to wade into Florida politics, he will push back.

Deep in Mr. Sarandos’s memo to Netflix employees is an interesting perspective on how the company views its workforce.

“We model ourselves on being a professional sports team, not a family,” the memo says. “A family is about unconditional love. A dream team is about pushing yourself to be the best possible teammate, caring intensely about your team and knowing you may not be on the team forever. Dream teams are about performance, not seniority or tenure.”

The memo also talks about the “keeper test,” a method by which managers rate employees and their potential longevity at the company. It’s simple, straightforward and merit-based – if an employee were offered a job elsewhere, would the manager try to keep them?

In a culture of mass victimization, the Netflix way is a dose of reality – perhaps too harsh for those who believe hugs should be part of a company’s benefits package.

But with inflation soaring to record levels, recession looming and the prospect of a tightening job market on the horizon, these issues in the workplace may take care of themselves, without any executive engineering. In a world with fewer jobs to go around, only the people who really want them – and will do them without grumbling – will survive.

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