Hal Bienstock, Managing Director, and Philippa Ushio, SVP, Prosek Partners
During the early days of the Biden administration, the word heard most often in our political discourse is “unity.” Many are calling for it; others say it’s not possible just yet.
But divisions don’t only exist on Capitol Hill. Most every workplace has its share of divergent viewpoints. Even in offices that are nominally politics-free, the divide makes it harder than ever for leaders to keep teams cohesive and focused.
This is especially important in sectors like tech and healthcare, where many companies recruit by encouraging people to be part of a larger social mission. Viewed through the lens of improving a workplace’s growth and development, unity can be a valuable metric with which to measure internal communication and cultural inclusion. A study from Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) found that when people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and three-and-a-half times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential.
With this in mind, how do leaders succeed in navigating these choppy waters?
Acknowledge the outside world – In the past corporations thought it best to stay quiet on events that occurred outside the workplace. But as personal and professional lives have become increasingly blended, maintaining a clear distinction between the two is no longer possible. Leadership should have a structured conversation and establish a communications response framework that allows the organization to engage with employees during the moments that matter.
This is still uncomfortable ground for many leaders, but with employees demanding that corporations make their voices heard, silence is not an option. No one expects their CEO to have all the answers, but they do want the CEO to at least acknowledge problems and begin thinking about solutions.
Respect all views – While most people know it’s wise to leave politics out of the workplace, that’s often easier said than done. That’s why employers should provide a time and space for people to talk things out, rather than leave it to chance.
During last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, many companies convened “Candid Conversation” events where people could talk openly about their feelings and questions. But over time, these events got scheduled less often, depriving employees of a valuable outlet. Opportunities to talk shouldn’t be reserved only for times of crisis. They should be regularly scheduled parts of a comprehensive internal communications program, just like town halls or emails from the CEO.
Share leadership stories – During volatile times, people want to hear from the CEO and other leaders. While the focus of these communications should be on the employees and the resources available to them, it’s OK for leaders to share their feelings too. That doesn’t mean providing political analysis or supporting a candidate. But it could mean explaining why they are disturbed or excited about a specific event or moment in time It’s important to note that this is very different from expressing views on policy, which is best delivered at the corporate level with one voice.
We’ve seen client CEOs talk effectively about their grandfathers who fought in World War II or their parents who immigrated from another country, and how those things impacted their views today. That kind of authenticity is welcome and brings the conversation from the political to the personal. It also signals to employees that it’s OK for them to share their feelings as well.
But don’t overshare – That said, the CEO should communicate on issues sparingly. Your company exists to serve customers, not to become the next McLaughlin Group. Express your concerns, make sure employees are heard and supported, then pivot back to the thing that brought you all together in the first place – your corporate mission and values. As with most things, going to the well too often leads to diminishing returns.
Ask, don’t assume – If you want to know whether your employees feel like your organization is a safe space and is living up to its values, there’s one easy way to find out: ask them. And do it regularly. Conducting quarterly employee surveys will allow you to keep your finger on the pulse and tailor your communications so you can address any concerns before they become major issues. Most importantly, these surveys will provide a baseline you can use to measure your success over time.
In this era of employee activism, it’s critical that companies provide employees with forums to come together and share their views. In many ways, people’s thoughts are like a tea kettle. The steam has to be let out somewhere. If you don’t provide a release valve, it’s more likely that complaints will find their way to Twitter, Glassdoor, or the media.
As the one-year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter protests approaches, employees, investors and reporters will be analyzing how companies lived up to the promises they made in 2020. Now is the time to put systems in place to ensure you can answer the inevitable questions.
About the Authors…
Philippa Ushio is SVP at Prosek Partners where she leads teams in developing communications strategies and mounting multi-disciplinary campaigns to protect and enhance business value.
Hal Bienstock is a Managing Director at Prosek Partners. He has spent more than 20 years working as a brand strategist and corporate communications executive.