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ViacomCBS Chief Bob Bakish Apologizes Over Return-to-Work Comments

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ViacomCBS chief Bob Bakish was forced to apologize to staff on Wednesday after statements he made during a company-wide town hall about return-to-work plans were seen as insensitive by some employees.

Bakish was hosting one of his “Bob Live” discussions with Chief Technology Officer Phil Wiser and Chief People Officer Nancy Phillips when he began musing that the move back into a combination of remote work and a return to offices was “the greatest social experiment” of recent history. Bakish also was discussing the past two years of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, one that has seen many employees transition to working from their homes. The theme of his comments, according to one knowledgable individual, was that the public health crisis has made it necessary for companies and their employees to become more adaptable.

However, some staffers believed that the ViacomCBS chief meant that the pandemic and not the shifts in workplace culture sparked by the crisis was the “social experiment” in question. That prompted a series of negative comments on ViacomCBS’s internal chat feature, which allows staffers to post questions and responses to speakers in real time. Bakish’s comments came roughly 40 minutes into an hour-long talk, according to three people with knowledge of his remarks.

As part of the presentation, Bakish and other ViacomCBS executives yielded the stage to a taped bit in which “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert saluted essential workers. When he returned, Bakish quickly apologized to for using the phrase “social experiment” in the context of Covid.

“I didn’t mean to offend anyone who has lost loved ones or lost friends…what I meant was it’s a phenomenon that’s impacted everyone around the globe,” Bakish said. He went to apologize to “anyone offended by that characterization.”

ViacomCBS has set Jan. 10 as the date it wants staffers to return to the office for 50% of the time. However, given the recent surge in cases of COVID in states like New York where the company is headquartered, some employees felt that Bakish’s comments didn’t reflect the worsening situation. Bakish’s “Bob Live” discussions usually take place every four to six weeks.