Report: Employers shouldn’t shy away from charged topics

Today hundreds of thousands of young people across the globe ditched their classes and joined together on the streets to demand that the world’s governments and businesses do more to address climate change.

It wasn’t just students who were protesting, however. More than 900 Google workers also walked out, along with hundreds of employees from Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter, reports CNBC. Companies such as Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s are also shutting their offices and facilities in solidarity with the strikers.

Traditionally, most organizations have taken the approach that the best way to deal with a controversial issue is to stay as far away from it as possible.

However, a new Conference Board report finds that this approach may be outdated.

“Employees don’t leave these issues at home when they come to work,” says Robin Erickson, principal researcher at The Conference Board and co-author of the report.

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Many employees are actively pushing their organizations to take a stance on particular issues, even if it impacts the bottom line. Last year Google ended its participation in Project Maven, a U.S. Defense Dept. initiative to develop A.I.-based tools for analyzing drone video, after a walkout by employees who objected to “the business of war.” Other companies are taking the initiative themselves: In the wake of mass shootings, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods recently announced they would discontinue selling certain kinds of guns and ammunition, despite the millions in lost potential revenue.

Workers tend to trust their employer more than other institutions, Erickson says, citing this notable finding: The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found that most employees trust their employers to do what is right more than they trust the government, the media or non-governmental organizations such as charities.

For the report, titled Higher Expectations: How Organizations Engage with Social Change Issues, Erickson and her co-author, Conference Board associate researcher Amanda Popiela, conducted an online survey of over 500 respondents across various industries, functions and levels and held in-depth interviews with 10 HR leaders from across different industries. They found that 90% of respondents say it is at least “moderately important” that the organization they work for be involved in social change, while 32% said the organization should always respond to social change issues.

“A common mistake we saw [among organizations] was no response [to social change issues],” says Popiela.

Topics such as ageism, #MeToo, climate change and LGBTQ rights weigh heavily on many employees’ minds right now, says Erickson. Other topics, such as the treatment of veterans and the disabled, are also important to them. Companies that distance themselves from these topics risk alienating employees and lowering engagement levels, she says.

The survey finds that the five social changes employees feel most strongly that their employer should take a stand on publicly and internally include:

  • Gender (female leadership, #MeToo movement, pay equity)–73%
  • Disabilities (ADA accommodations, for example)–71%
  • LGBTQ (marriage equality, violence, etc.)–64%
  • Well-being (physical and mental health, mindfulness)–62%
  • Ageism (employment of people over 40)–57%

The bottom three social change issues that employees felt their organizations should respond to publicly and internally include:

  • Nationalism (representative democracy, violence)–30%
  • Sizeism (weight bias)–26%
  • Gun Control (legislation, rights)–22%

It’s crucial for organizations in general–and HR in particular–to be plugged in to what’s on employees’ minds to minimize the risk of ignoring or minimizing an issue that a substantial portion of the workforce cares deeply about, she says.

HR has an important role to play not only in monitoring whether certain topics are strongly resonating with the workforce but in helping to devise an effective response, says Erickson.

Employee resource groups can be good sources of information on how employees feel about certain issues, says Erickson. “ERG members often feel very passionately about certain issues,” she says.

Listen to a podcast on The Conference Board report on social change.

One of the companies interviewed for the report holds an annual summit in which each of the organization’s 11 ERGs discuss uses that are relevant to the specific groups (which include employees with disabilities and veterans).

Another best practice is for members of the C-suite to align themselves with specific ERGs and serve as champions for them, she says. “Those leaders are very willing to take the issues the ERG members care about to their peers on the leadership team.”

Pulse surveys and engagement surveys of employees can also be useful for surfacing issues and concerns, says Erickson. Social media and exit surveys are also good potential sources of information.

“A best practice is to look at multiple sources of data,” she says.

One mistake to avoid, say Erickson and Popiela, is for organizations to respond publicly to an issue without crafting an internal message for employees. A company that puts out a public statement but neglects to send a message internally risks having employees think leadership isn’t concerned about them, they say.

Responding to social change issues can be fraught for some companies, says Erickson.

“We’ve got some global companies that very much want to be in the forefront of promoting equal rights, but they’re operating in parts of the globe where women and LGBTQ people have no rights,” she says. “They need to put a lot of thought into this.”

A carefully thought out strategy for responding to social change issues is crucial, she says.

“Social change issues should matter to organizations because they matter to their employees and customers, both of whom affect their profitability,” says Erickson.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.