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Employee activism in the age of Israel-Palestine and the ‘year of elections’

Kevin Oakes, i4cp
Kevin Oakes
Kevin Oakes is the CEO of the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and is a frequent author and international keynote speaker on topics such as organizational culture, talent management, leadership, innovation, metrics and strategic learning in organizations.

A few weeks ago, Google made headlines by taking a strong stance against protesters at their New York and Sunnyvale, Calif., offices. The company reportedly fired 50 employees involved in “disruptive activity” over its cloud-computing contract with the Israeli government. The employees involved, called the No Tech for Apartheid group, said in a statement that the company “is throwing a tantrum” and is vowing to continue its workplace activism at Google, saying they hope to send a message to company executives that they will not stop fighting.

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This isn’t isolated to Google, of course. I’ve recently spoken with several F500 companies that have wrestled with employee activism and a workforce with diametrically opposed views. The emotional diatribe can often cross the line of civility … one prominent company I spoke with shut down its internal social channel for the first time in its existence because of hate speech between employees over the Israel-Hamas war.

In the context of employee activism, 2024 has certainly been active. We can only anticipate it will increase for the remainder of the year. One big (familiar) reason it will continue: politics.

This has been dubbed “the year of elections.” By the time the year is over, it is expected we will have witnessed a record-breaking 2 billion-plus voters cast their ballots in over 50 countries. While some of this has already occurred, much of the world is anticipating the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Many are expecting continued disruptions to the workplace as a divided employee base expresses their views leading up to the election and—whatever the outcome—likely long after it has concluded.

While organizations have felt pressure to take a stand on certain issues in the past, 2024 is proving to be more complex. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, corporations in the U.S. are trying hard to stay off the political radar, even eschewing common election initiatives such as imploring employees to vote, fearing that advice could be considered partisan. Some companies, such as Cisco, are coaching managers to “lower the temperature” and discourage debate.

Limiting conversations among the workforce is tricky. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said in a memo following the protester firings that he didn’t want the company to “fight over disruptive issues or debate politics.” While many other CEOs would share that sentiment, keeping political conversations out of the workplace is virtually impossible.

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And this is where it gets difficult for HR professionals.

I’ve read many articles in business publications about workplace activism, and typically it is expected that HR will act as the internal arbiter when disputes arise. Some have suggested that HR monitor internal social channels and employee groups to ensure corporate policies are respected. And many expect HR to enforce these policies—through warnings, suspensions or, in extreme cases, firings.

While acting as organizational police isn’t HR’s job, the first thing HR can do is be prepared. Courses and workshops reinforce the importance of respectful conversation and the basic concept of listening to understand versus listening only with the intent to reply. Additionally, working with other senior leaders, scenario plan how the organization will handle inflammatory internal debate, employee protests and even the possibility of defending corporate customers or explaining which causes or candidates organizational donations have supported. Take the stance that peaceful protests are OK, but once activism becomes disruptive to work or creates a hostile environment for employees, actions will be taken.

Fortune favors the prepared

With preparation in mind, I’ll reference an excellent article that Hubert Joly, the former chairman and CEO of Best Buy and a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, wrote in Fortune magazine several months ago. Hubert spoke at my company’s annual conference this spring, and sitting with him throughout the day, I found him to be a rational, logical leader with a great grasp of managing the people side of the business.

In his article, Hubert first wisely advises that companies should focus their engagement on issues connected to their purpose, their values and their key stakeholders. He then offers seven practices that, in the current context of heightened polarization, organizations should consider. Here is a summary of the seven practices:

    1. Monitor risks and vulnerabilities. Companies need to develop a heat map of societal issues and identify areas where the company may be vulnerable and at risk of becoming a target.
    2. Proactively plan for upcoming issues. Inventory issues that are likely to come up in the upcoming months and years and develop an appropriate plan around them. This approach allowed many companies to prepare ahead of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
    3. Develop and/or be able to access a broad set of capabilities. Companies are exposed to an increasing array of issues that go well beyond what most organizations have historically been prepared to handle. Develop and maintain a network of internal and external experts to help the organization navigate complicated and nuanced issues.
    4. Double down on what you can do and control rather than what you can say. Short but sweet: Focus more on doing and less on speaking. Joly contrasts how Delta’s CEO spoke out about Georgia’s new election rules vs. UPS’ decision to stay quiet and support initiatives.
    5. Put those in your care first. This seems simple but is often overlooked. Put employee interests above all else. This not only includes protecting their safety but also consulting with them to understand what matters to the workforce to help guide the company’s choices.
    6. Understand your leverage. Particularly in areas where an organization is a large employer, don’t ignore the influence the company can exert. Joly describes how a law in Indiana that would allow companies to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community on religious grounds was changed based on a few companies objecting to it.
    7. Stay true to the company’s fundamental values. While business leaders are not elected officials or policymakers, Joly makes the point that there are times when companies need to adamantly stick up for their values on behalf of their employees and customers. He uses examples from Merck and Target as tangible evidence.

While Joly’s seven practices serve as a nice blueprint, it’s important to also reach out to peers and glean insights and techniques from other organizations. In this vein, my company recently announced a flash call series for i4cp member CPOs to discuss how they are currently handling these situations and what preparations they are making. If you are an HR executive, I encourage you to do the same and tap into your network to confidentially discuss how your peers are preparing.

Google’s decision to terminate the employment of protesters provides timely aircover for all companies to establish plans, and it’s also a good time to gently remind employees of internal codes of conduct and organizational values. Obviously, this is a topic that goes far beyond just HR’s interest. However, HR can be a catalyst in urging senior leaders as well as boards to be cognizant of how the organization should act and respond to employee discontent and activism—issues that are only likely to escalate in the second half of 2024.