Today’s headlines are filled with hot-button issues — polarizing Americans with different political beliefs. The leaked Supreme Court draft that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and Texas’ abortion bounty laws are just a few items on the shortlist.
Employees are not just taking to the streets in protest. Demands for change have entered the conference rooms, Slack channels and lunchrooms at your company.
Employee activism occurs when workers organize to bring about change at their job. That can range from pressuring executives to make a statement, demanding the company to cancel vendors with controversial political views, posting on company social media accounts or just talking politics around the water cooler.
As much as you might want to keep politics out of your workplace, labor and employment attorney Paul Lopez admits that complete separation in today’s digital era may be impossible. More than 80% of employers expect a rise in activism among employees by 2024, according to global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
“In the past, employee activism mainly happened through in-person groups like unions,” says Lopez, who works as a labor and employment lawyer at the firm Tripp Scott. “This was something employers at least had some power to shut down. Now, all it takes is one person on social media to really stir up a hornet’s nest.”
Staying quiet on political issues can also hurt your company, Lopez notes. Frustrated employees could lead to reduced work performance, walkouts or even resignations. However, taking a stance may also isolate roughly half the country, including your possible client base. Disney CEO Bob Chapek experienced this catch-22 when he spoke out against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
So just how should you and your organization walk the tightrope of employee activism? Here’s how to get started.
Remember Your Core Values
When deciding your response to political storms, let your company’s core values be your guide, suggests Kelly McDonald, a leading DE&I speaker, author and consultant through McDonald Marketing. “For Patagonia to take a strong stand against climate change, that makes sense,” McDonald says. “For a random silicon chip manufacturer in Texas to do the same for gay rights, perhaps not as much.”
Tim Murphy, CEO of Boomers Parks, a group of eight family amusement centers and amusement parks, agrees. “Our mission is to create a welcoming environment for all groups at our parks,” he explains.
Murphy notes that this meant showing some flexibility towards groups not all his employees agree with. For example, rather than refusing entry to those who didn’t want to wear masks in the pandemic, Murphy asked them to come back when the park was less crowded. On the other hand, when a group came in trying to throw an event celebrating Trump, he asked them to leave, as “a political protest wouldn’t be welcoming to all groups.”
When weighing in on Disney’s response to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Murphy believes Chapek strayed from their core values by picking a fight with DeSantis.
“Disney should be focused on profitability and creating an unforgettable experience for all types of guests,” says Murphy, who once worked for the organization. “Did they do these things or did they bend to support a specific group?”
McDonald is less convinced and considers diversity to also be an important value for Disney, especially as many of their employees are in the LGBTQ community. “There’s nothing worse than hypocrisy when it comes to values,” she explains. “You can’t fold like a chair when the going gets rough. Otherwise, you stand for nothing.”
Deciding Which Company Leaders Respond to Calls for Activism
When it comes to overseeing employee advocacy, McDonald believes “the CEO sets the table” and should be the person to communicate the organization’s position. However, she also recommends that the CEO designate a deputy to interact with employees and report on any progress or activities.
“It could be a chief talent officer, a chief diversity officer, even a high-level manager,” McDonald. “The title itself is less important but it’s crucial that this role is filled by someone employees respond to and respect.”
In addition to public statements, your team can also run town-hall meetings and listening sessions with senior leaders. Murphy believes it’s his accessibility that helps keep his employees calm during heated political moments. These outlets also offer a chance to remind employees of the company’s core values.
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Create a Playbook for Confronting Employee Activism
Savvy leaders will create a playbook to help them respond when confronted with political decisions in their organization. Your exact response to these challenges will vary based on your organizational values, the demographics of your workforce and the location of your company.
However, we’ve gathered these nine tactics to help you prepare for increasingly intense employee activism.
1. Focus on Your Values and Keep Them Up-to-date
McDonald notes that if it’s been years since you’ve reviewed your values, consider whether a refresh is necessary. “A company may have planted their flag on values 10 years ago, but so much has changed since then,” she says. “If you haven’t revisited, I would have a leadership meeting to outline and set company values.”
2. Create Clear Guidelines in Your Employee Handbook
Your employee handbook should lay out what behaviors are acceptable for your employees with examples, especially as they consider forms of political activism and social media usage. “You could make it clear that any activism shouldn’t be tied to the company,” Lopez explains. “For example, if an employee uses their LinkedIn to make political posts, they should have a disclaimer saying it’s their personal viewpoint and not that of your company.”
3. Have Your Response Plan Ready
While you don’t know when a new controversial issue will arise, your team can outline a plan in preparation for when news breaks. Will you call your employee task force? Will you make a statement with your public relations team? Will you respond to your employees only internally? Figure out your timeframe for when you will respond and how.
4. Provide Your Executives a Script
If one of your executives gets put on the spot while discussing a political issue with an employee, they could accidentally make a statement that clashes with your core values or even creates an argument. That’s why McDonald recommends providing executives a go-to script when responding to hot button issues.
“Your executives can turn around and say ‘Hey I know it’s a volatile issue. Let me pull up the company’s position so I can explain where we stand on this,’” she says.
McDonald understands that not every employee will be happy with this response, but executives should avoid expanding any further or getting too deep into politics. “The mindset should be ‘I’m here to discuss the issue with you and hear you out, but I’m not going to debate it with you,’” McDonald says.
5. Remember: Employees Follow Your Lead
Employees tend to follow the example of leadership, notes Jeb Ory, president and chief strategy officer of Capitol Canary. Companies with highly politically engaged executives tend to have highly engaged employees.
“If you have public executives who are really active on news and social media, the employee base is going to follow and be more activist,” says Ory, whose firm provides software tools for political advocacy. “Think about what behavior you want to see with employees.”
6. Create an Employee Activism Task Force
Lopez suggests creating an inclusive and diverse group of employees — in terms of gender, race, and seniority level — in response to calls for activism. “Having this employee task force shows you’re open to dialogue,” says Lopez. Employees can voice their political concerns to this committee. The group can also provide recommendations to company leadership. Lopez notes you don’t have to follow every recommendation, but it shows you’re listening.
7. Demonstrate Commitment Beyond the Public Statement
Since taking a stance on a political issue can upset half your customer base, a public statement might not be an option. However, there are other ways you can show your employees you support them. McDonald gives Salesforce as an example. “They are based out of Texas. When the government passes their abortion bounty law, Salesforce offered to relocate any of their Texas-based employees uncomfortable with the law to other states,” she says. “They made it about retention, not politics.”
8. Remind Employees About the Value of Avoiding Conflict
When employees are fired up about a political issue, they can lose sight of the ultimate goal of your organization: to run a successful and profitable business. Ory suggests reminding them of the possible consequences of taking too strong a stance on a political issue.
“If we upset half our customers, we might have to lose half of our staff. Do we really want that?” Ory explains. “It’s an opportunity to reframe the conversation and channel the energy into something that could be really valuable for the company.”
9. Offer Civic Engagement Days
At Capitol Canary, Ory found an effective way to channel employee activism energy is by providing them three civic engagement days a year. “They can take the day off to vote or to get engaged with the political causes they care about,” he shares. “That way they aren’t using that energy at work.”
See more from Senior Executive on navigating political storms.