(Photo by Julie Zeglen)
#MeToo. Black Lives Matter. Diversity. Donald Trump.
They dominate the news and are on the tips of many Americans’ tongues. But what place do those conversations have in the workplace? What are companies’ obligations to speak out in response to national policies that hurt their employees — and more importantly, to create a safe space for the employees affected by those policies?
- Translator founder and CEO Natalie Egan, an openly transgender entrepreneur whose company provides diversity, equity and inclusion technology for corporations
- SAP North America SVP Jewell Parkinson, who head up human resources at the international software corporation
- Think Company Principal of Content Strategy Dave Dylan Thomas, who also hosts a podcast on cognitive bias
Here’s how these three experts answered some hard questions about ethics, politics and work.
What companies have responded well publicly to these social issues, and which have responded poorly?
According to the panelists, companies that have done a good job include Salesforce; benefit corporations such as Kickstarter and Patagonia that are inherently more beholden to public good than shareholders; Spotify, with its activist-themed playlists such as “I’m with the banned“; Facebook, when its CEO defends Black Lives Matter internally; and Dick’s Sporting Goods, for upping its age requirement for buying rifles in its stores following the Parkland shooting and now advocating for tighter gun laws.
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Companies that have done a bad job include Facebook, when it still requires first-time users to choose between two genders, despite then allowing them to write in their own gender to be displayed, and when it employs few Black people; and Waffle House.
When making public statements, companies should make sure their actions and words align, Parkinson said: “I think it’s this conflict, sometimes, that gets exposed between your values, your culture, what you espouse, and in fact what you’re actually doing in terms of tangible outcomes.”
Dick’s, for example, made a quick and public stance to call for gun control — “and that might seen common sense, but it was radical for what they were doing,” she said.
Conversely, Parkinson said she feels that Waffle House’s initial responses to the recent violent arrest of a Black women in one of its restaurants have been underwhelming and “really lack the corporate courage that one would like to see.”
Egan was blunter: “Overall, no one’s really doing culture correctly, especially at large organizations.”
Q: Which companies are doing well addressing prominent social issues, such as #BLM, #MeToo?
Natalie Egan: “I don’t think anyone’s doing well here. Orgs are making superficial actions.”#Intro18 #PTW18 #ImpactRoom pic.twitter.com/FR2k8oT1cY
— Ebonee Johnson™ (@eboneezahscrewg) May 3, 2018
That said, Salesforce has been making big strides in pay equity and in creating a safe-feeling environment for women and trans individuals, especially, said Egan, who’s worked with the corporation in various capacities throughout her career.
“As a trans individual,” she said, “I’ve never walked into a company or an environment and felt like I could be myself the way I can almost everywhere at Salesforce.”
When is the right time for companies to make public statements about social issues?
In the winter of 2017, SAP chose to respond to the Trump administration’s proposed travel bans of seven Muslim-majority countries with an internal statement from CEO Bill McDermott to the company’s 92,000-member workforce, which spans 100 countries and could be directly impacted by the ban.
“There was an upheaval — really, a groundswell of feedback, concern, ambiguity, fear that was rising up out of the employee base,” Parkinson said. “Companies increasingly are expected to play an activism role. [Corporate America] does need to be clear and definitive about what you stand for, because it impacts their consumers, their shareholders and their employees, and it’s what people are looking for.”
Most employees are disengaged from their workplaces, but culture can change that, Egan said, such as by having internal discussions about how employees’ lived experiences are impacted by the day’s news.
And more impactful than widespread public statements can be internal responses to errors the company has made, with an active, long-term plan for correcting them.
“That humble approach to this is a lot better than saying, ‘Hey, at this organization, we stand for X, Y and Z’ when every employee is going, ‘We don’t see that at all,'” she said.
How can you make space for employees to reflect on how the news is affecting them? What’s HR’s role?
“There’s no longer a separation between work and life, so the things that affect the daily lives of your colleagues get brought to work,” Parkinson said.
SAP has over 80 employee resource groups, or internal, self-directed communities where people with similar experiences can engage with each other via physical convenings and other methods. For example, the SAP’s Businesswomen’s Network has 13,000 members, and every major office has a local chapter.
Companies also need clear HR policies supporting inclusive hiring, leadership values and culture, Parkinson said: “We have to set the tone.”
Think Company has an #activism Slack channel as well as paid volunteer time for employees, which creates “space not just to react to the news, but to do something about it,” Thomas said.
“By providing 16 hrs paid volunteer time off & making Thinkiversary donations ($100/yr to a charity of our choice), @thinkcompany creates spaces for us to proactively engage social issues that matter to us.” –@movie_pundit speaking about company responsibility at #PTW18 #Intro18
— Brian McIntire (@brianmcintire) May 3, 2018
How should companies handle disagreement between employees on these social issues?
Thomas said he’s learned from his cognitive bias research that the worst bias when it comes to disagreement is called the fundamental attribution error; “it’s a fancy way of saying, ‘I’m fine, you have a problem.'” That attitude will inherently lead to disagreement.
Instead, people — including employees — should set ground rules before engaging in political discourse, he said: that neither party has the right answer, that neither will win (because it’s not a competition), and that the goal of the discussion is to build something new.
While disagreement “is an opportunity to educate and share your own experience,” Parkinson said, there are occasionally stark examples of right and wrong which demand responses of courageous leadership — such as that of Merck CEO Ken Frazier leaving one of Trump’s business advisory council in protest of the president’s statements equivocating white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville with their protesters.
Egan said one her biggest professional challenges since transitioning has been “having empathy for people that don’t have empathy for me.” That’s been key for her “understanding a lot of the challenges that we have in corporate America or even in our personal lives.”
“I think when you have empathy for how people are making their decisions and their experience and how they got to where they are, it’s a little bit easier than just being angry or vengeful,” she said. “The more that we can teach that, the better we’re going to be as a human race, and obviously, corporate America.”
— Margaret Roth (@margaret_h_r) May 3, 2018
P.S. Pro tip: If your company is sexist and HR doesn’t seem to care, know that people outside the company definitely will.
A tip from Jewell Parkinson @SAP, followed up by @juliezeglen:
If a company is doing wrong… put them on blast. Tell Twitter. Or a journalist. The public deserves to know! #PTW18 pic.twitter.com/Aouq1g0Pr4
— alexandria-d'or (@AsGoodAsTheyGet) May 3, 2018
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