Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins has just waded into one of the most politically contentious debates in the country. In an all-hands meeting with employees, Robbins called for new gun laws, including additional background checks, in response to last month’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Cisco, which sells networking equipment to companies and organizations all over the world, held an internal livestream on June 2. In the meeting, Robbins discussed the massacre at Robb Elementary School, which claimed 21 victims, 19 of whom were third and fourth grade schoolchildren.
Robbins offered his condolences to the victims and urged action from political leaders to protect kids and schools. One employee who tuned into the livestream recalled Robbins saying that he hoped Congress would act with a similar outrage as it did when Russia invaded Ukraine.
The House on Wednesday passed a gun bill that would raise the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle in the U.S. from 18 to 21. However, the bill doesn’t stand much of a chance in the Senate, which is evenly divided along party lines when it comes to new firearm legislation. Republicans, who have remained united in their staunch opposition to such changes, can block a bill that has fewer than 60 votes.
While tech executives have spoken up in recent years on issues like immigration and racial justice, they’ve been more reluctant to engage on the most controversial matters, largely to avoid upsetting employees and customers. Robbins’ commentary is notable because Cisco has staffers and clients all over the map — both politically and geographically speaking — and a culture that’s generally viewed as more conservative than many of its younger Silicon Valley peers. The company had 79,500 full-time employees as of mid-2021.
Robbins’ statements led to a heated debate on an internal chat board as employees began arguing their positions on the issue. Eventually an executive in human resources intervened to try and keep the discussion apolitical, according to people familiar with the matter.
Some employees were angry with Robbins, accusing him and the company of trying to take away their Second Amendment rights, said the people, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue. Another group of employees jumped in to defend Robbins and said his statements were being misinterpreted.
Robbins confirmed elements of the discussion with CNBC on Wednesday, following an appearance on “Mad Money” with Jim Cramer. He said that even though the in-fighting occurred among a small contingent of employees, the “politicization” of gun laws made him “pissed off.”
Robbins said he knew that bringing up the topic of guns was “risky,” but he told CNBC he felt the need to say something because “children in schools are being slaughtered.” He said he has a grandchild preparing to enter the first grade, so the issue hits close to home for him.
It’s not the first time for Robbins to express his views following the Uvalde massacre. Shortly after the shooting in late May, Francine Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer, tweeted: “We must call on leaders in Congress to pass sensible gun control legislation starting with background checks to ensure a safer future for children and communities in the U.S.”
Robbins shared the tweet and added, “We need Congress to act. It is clear our current plan is NOT working.”
The issue is currently gaining momentum in the private sector. Some 200 corporate leaders, under the name “CEOs for Gun Safety,” have signed a petition urging the Senate to take action.
In a note to employees following the Uvalde shooting, Cisco said employees could have the following day off work if they wanted some personal time in the wake of the tragedy.
A Cisco spokesperson sent this statement in an email to CNBC:
“At Cisco, we are passionate about helping our employees feel safe and supported at work and in their communities. And like many, we are devastated and heartbroken by the tragedies that have occurred over the past few weeks. In our company check-ins, Cisco regularly provides opportunities for employees to share their concerns, learn from outside experts and access resources if they choose to get involved. Powering an Inclusive Future for All begins with promoting healthy dialogue, and Cisco is proud of its programs that give employees the opportunity to express their views and support for issues that are important to them.”
Robbins hasn’t been shy when it comes to engaging on hot-button issues in recent years.
Immediately following the the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Robbins and executives held a 90-minute “teach-in” instead of its usual all-hands meeting in order to discuss structural racism, implicit bias, police brutality and “shared responsibility” of employees and the public. In 2018, Robbins sent multiple companywide emails about the importance of accessing mental health treatment and finding a support network after a string of high-profile suicides.
—CNBC tech reporter Jordan Novet contributed to this report.