In less than two weeks, sixteen US states will vote in the primaries to nominate the candidate that will represent their party in the November election.  Brexit has officially begun, although it is likely to take years to actually finish.  And “cancel culture” is in full effect, with employees and consumers boycotting brands they believe to be acting unethically or in contravention of their personal beliefs.  As politics heat up, some people inevitably bring their feelings publicly to work.  This can cause incivility, bullying, the outcasting of individuals, retaliation, an uncomfortable work environment, and a host of allegations of violations of the Code of Conduct.  

The uprise in political statements at work and personal activism isn’t imagined – its acceptance in the workplace is relatively new.  Why has this trend begun, and more importantly, as compliance professionals, what specific actions can we take to ensure a workplace culture that adheres to the company’s values and is a comfortable workplace for everyone to be?  Let’s find out. 

The Stats: People Feel Empowered to Act Against their Company

Beginning about 2012, the “bring your whole self to work” movement began to pick up steam.  The idea was simple: we shouldn’t compartmentalize ourselves into a “work version” that constrains who we are as a total human being.  In 2018, there was a book written about how vulnerability and expression of pain and joy lead to creativity.  The movement has empowered people to speak up about their concerns, which can be very positive for the speak-up culture the compliance team wishes to nurture when it comes to unethical conduct. Unfortunately, some people interpret this movement as a license to engage in incendiary conversation and rude behavior.

A study done by Weber Shandwick found that the majority of US employees believe they have the right to speak up at work about issues that impact society.  In fact, nearly 40% of US workers said they have raised their voices to support or criticize their employers’ actions regarding a controversial issue affecting society.  Fully 82% of millennials believe they have a right to speak up against their employer.  One of the troubles with this is that not everyone will agree with what is “right” to speak out about. 

The internet and competing news channels have given rise to the normalization of name-calling and the polarizing of society around political identity.  When people bring this to work, the culture can sour quickly.  Here’s what Compliance can do about it.

No. 1: Be Aware of what You Can and Can’t Do Legally

Many companies put a ban on wearing politically-affiliated clothing and hats to work.  Some also try to ban political speech at work.  Considering that the majority of US workers believe they have the right to speak up at work, Compliance needs to tread the line between stopping confrontations and allowing employees to have a point of view (especially in quasi-work spaces like lunchrooms or when they are out together at an off-site event). 

Pay attention to legality as well.  For instance, a few years back, the US National Labor Relations Board ruled that a burger chain’s employees were legally allowed to wear pins endorsing their desire to unionize and have a $15 minimum wage, despite the fact that all pins and badges were not allowed under the employer’s uniform policy. 

Likewise, in Europe, companies have dealt with works councils that have objected to statements in the Code of Conduct or in policies dictating that employees may not post information or opinions about the company on social media, nor speak in public outlets about their work experiences and feelings about the company’s actions.  While it is perfectly reasonable to tell employees not to share company secrets or commercial plans, restricting speech in other ways may not be possible. If in doubt, contact your legal department or outside counsel.

No. 2: Communicate on Your Values

It’s likely that your company has at least one written value that lends itself to be interpreted as a call to civility.  Values relating to integrity, trust, accountability, leadership, and collaboration can all be used to frame the idea of treating people (and their opinions) with respect.  Begin a communications campaign to expand on the corporate value most aligned with civility and respect in the workplace.  If the company allows it, you may even want to allude to the elections in your country, reminding people that political action is appropriate only outside of the workplace.

No. 3: Re-Review Your Policies, and Update as Necessary

Do you have a social media policy?  What about a non-discrimination policy?  Does your Code of Conduct mention civility and respect for customers and other employees?  If not, consider bringing such policies into the workplace.  If your company has these policies, review them to ensure they cover all of the topics that need to be addressed.  Communicate updates to the policy to your employee base to show that the policy matters.

No. 4: Target Repeat Offenders, Especially those in Leadership

Actions speak louder than words and punishing repeat offenders can show others quickly that uncivil behavior will not be tolerated at work.  Even if there isn’t a formal policy, all employees should be aware that yelling, discriminating, isolating and demeaning others at work are violations of the Code of Conduct.  If people see the company taking action to stop incivility, they are likely to take the idea more seriously themselves.

No. 4: Consider a Focus Group

It’s helpful to know how people on the ground are feeling about the company’s actions, especially if they involve controversy.  Keeping a focus group of people from different areas of the business can be very helpful.  Perhaps they meet quarterly with you and a representative from HR?  Perhaps they can give you feedback on controversial choices the company is making before they become public?  If employees know that someone is listening to their opinions via their representative, it can help them to feel heard. Everyone wants to have their feelings considered, and as a bonus, having a focus group means it is much less likely that the company will be blind-sided by employee activism it did not anticipate.

No. 5: Prepare for the Worst

Talk to your company’s communications department to find out if they have a relationship with a public relations agency.  If not, ask them to consider putting one under retainer, or establishing a relationship with one that could help in the event of a political or social emergency.  You may even want to run a ta
ble-top exercise to simulate what would happen in a real boycott or other fallout with the public or your employees.  Preparedness is the key to a positive response.

Many of our parents told us it is rude to speak about religion, money, or politics.  Those prohibitions still largely hold true at work.  But in a world where people are bringing their whole selves – religiously, monetarily and politically – to work, we need to manage civility and upholding the company’s values in an even more focused way.