By Eric Butterman  

Some say politics and business don’t mix—and for many years that was the policy for most organizations. Well, times certainly have changed. “Workers had to show so much of themselves while working from home throughout the pandemic that they started to expect the same of their employer,” said Miriam Warren, Yelps’ Chief Diversity Officer, during a panel discussion at The Sandford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics’ 2022 Klion Forum. “What we (the employees) want back from you (the company) is to speak out on issues that affect our lives and our family's lives and our friends’ lives—to see us as whole people.” Warren, along with Emma Goldberg, writer for The New York Times, and Andrea Hagelgans, managing partner of social issues engagement at Edelman, discussed the rise of politics in the workplace during a time of social change with moderator Professor Todd Jick. A lightning round research talk by Professor Vanessa Burbano laid the groundwork for the discussion.    

Make a Statement 

To some CEOs, speaking out may be easier said than done. But saying nothing may only make it harder, including when it comes to retaining employees. “If they don't feel their employer is aligning with them politically or socially or at the very basic level of what benefits they'll provide then they have the opportunity to switch because there are a lot of openings,” said Goldberg, who covers the future of work and workplace issues on her Business Section beat. “The dynamics of the labor market are favoring workers right now, and that's putting pressure on companies to wade into certain issues that previously they might not have commented on.” 

When it comes to government, Warren noted that politics shouldn’t be thought of as separate from our lives. Lives that include work. “When we think about laws and legislation and all of the things that go into politics, they have a real impact on our daily lives, on where we can access, for example, abortions…” Warren said. “To think that this is somehow separate from people's actual lives is naïve because politics affect all of us every day…”   

Take a Stand

 Asking organizations to take a stand and speak out on issues is non-negotiable for many in the workplace today. To this point, Goldberg referenced the murder of George Floyd. “When millions of people were marching in the streets for Black Lives Matter, it would have felt surreal if the companies that people woke up in the morning and worked for didn’t comment on what was going on outside,” said Goldberg. “Certain political and social issues have expanded and heightened to a degree that it feels to a lot of people tone deaf if they don't hear any acknowledgment from their employer.” 

“The dynamics of the labor market are favoring workers right now, and that's putting pressure on companies to wade into certain issues that previously they might not have commented on." Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm, conducts a trust barometer every year. In 2022, the famed survey, which gauges a range of timely and important societal issues, revealed the demand for employers to engage on social issues isn’t going away. “Many people now feel like, post-pandemic, they want to bring their whole self to work and want that acknowledged,” said Hagelgans, who counsels the C-Suite on understanding and managing the risks of action or inaction on societal issues. 

But how should a company authentically respond to a political issue in the first place? “You don’t want companies to sort of fake it, to be sort of performative…” Professor Jick recalled from a preparatory conversation with Hagelgans. Hagelgans added that a company better know their track record on the subject at hand. “If you’re a company that wants to speak out during Women's History Month, you better know what your pay equity issues are internally first, because, trust me, Twitter will discover it for you if you don’t know already,” warned Hagelgans. 

Of course, companies have been criticized for slow response times. Nonetheless, Hagelgans cautioned against knee-jerk reactions. She recommends creating committees to interpret and make decisions about certain issues. “These issues are emotionally charged. Really think through the data around them and don't make the assumption that we shouldn't speak out on this because we're going to get killed in the media or vice versa,” she said. And, said Hagelgans, look at the team you’re assembling for the issue at hand. “The reality is you need to make sure you have a diverse room that's thinking through these things—particularly bringing in the employee perspective.”