Managing the Impact of Politics in Our Organizations

A key responsibility for any ethics and compliance professional is to help build and maintain a work environment where employees are engaged and cooperate toward common goals. Today’s social and political climate is making it more difficult to maintain collegiality and a positive organizational culture.

During the past year, governments have struggled to vaccinate their populations against a deadly virus amidst public fears and personal objections heightened by political opinion; the U.S. Capitol was overrun following an election deemed illegitimate by a third of the country (including the former President); Brexit was officially realized after years of negotiation and political turmoil; and the future of China continues to evolve, with the nation taking action this week in preparation of an unprecedented third term for President Xi Jinping. Any one of these events could credibly be described as “unprecedented” or “world-changing.” And these are just the highlights of 2021.

The seriousness of these events has made heated debates in the workplace all too common. And while the risk of incivility and polarization in the workplace runs high, the impact of politics is extending beyond just employee relations. Politics and disagreements over social issues are now causing consumer boycotts and even employee walkouts.

...politics is now about our identities, how we think about others, and our personal choices. In a nutshell, politics has become very personal.

Social media and the many ways it has changed the norms of discourse is certainly among the causes of this trend, but – perhaps more fundamentally – politics itself may be to blame. Political discourse has become more focused on hot-button issues including race, immigration, gender, religion, power and fairness. In addition to more arcane arguments concerning budgets or foreign policy, politics is now about our identities, how we think about others, and our personal choices. In a nutshell, politics has become very personal.

Read More: Managing Culture & Free Speech in Polarizing Times

But whatever the root cause, politics is creating significant risks that can quickly undo years of hard work devoted to building a brand and nurturing an organizational culture. Managing the impact of politics may very well be the hardest ethics and compliance challenge we will face in the coming year.

Here are some of the ways politics may have an impact on our work and some suggestions for what you can do to address the problem.

Steps for Organizations to Take

Manage Debates in the Breakroom & Beyond

No organization can – or should – try to prevent all political discussions among employees. Debates are important for civic and personal reasons and they are bound to happen in a diverse workforce. But organizations do have a responsibility to help ensure discussions remain respectful and never escalate into instances of harassment or even violence. Here are some steps to consider:

  • Increase your emphasis on awareness and training, especially related to your policies pertaining to political activity and respect in the workplace. And just as important, remember that consistent enforcement is always essential.
  • Target your training toward leaders and those who are identified as “repeat offenders” of office decorum. This may be the most effective way to zero in on those who are responsible for fanning the flames and creating troubling hotspots in the workplace.

Prepare to Be #Cancelled (While Trying Not to Be)

The social and political climate today has created a minefield for organizations. Every organization is at risk of a social media fueled backlash that can be sparked by an advertisement, a statement by your CEO, or a post by an employee. Even well-intended charitable donations can spark outrage and boycotts if it comes to light that the charity’s mission or past activities are offensive to some.

The power of “call-out” or “cancel culture” is real. Call-out or cancel culture is a form of public shaming where individuals or companies are vilified for real or perceived moral or political offenses. A litany of companies have recently faced boycotts by consumers or walkouts by their own employees. What can we do to minimize the risk of being the next target for organized outrage?

  • Leverage the influence you have to make sure that when decisions are being made about advertising or other public-facing actions, the right people have a seat at the table to speak up and challenge potentially questionable activities. While predicting what will trigger public outrage is hard, many instances can be anticipated when filtered through the right group.
  • Ensure leadership as well as public-facing departments are fully aware of the cancel culture risks and have detailed action plans in place, including internal communications plans to quickly respond when needed. Being proactive and paying more attention to the risks of triggering public outrage is essential, but sometimes the best approach may be preparing for when preemptive processes are not enough.

Ensure Political Self-Censorship Does Not Suppress a Speak-Up Culture

When a manager, senior leader or even the CEO speaks out on a political issue or publicly supports a candidate or cause, he or she may assume that the lack of any pushback is a sign that others agree. Unfortunately, this self-deception can have serious consequences. It should be obvious to all that there are many reasons why employees might not publicly disagree with the boss. They may judge that it is not worth the career risk, not believe they have enough facts to challenge authority, or feel that they would be unfairly cast in a negative light by their colleagues if their views were known. For all of these reasons many employees simply choose to self-censor.

Academics have studied why employees self-censor, and their findings are important to us because there may be a connection between political self-censorship and the erosion of an organization’s speak up culture.

  • Create a clear distinction between holding one’s political tongue and raising one’s voice. When employees believe they cannot voice their opinion or believe their views are not welcome, they may self-censor and withdraw from discussion. As ethics and compliance professionals, we need to ask whether employees who self-censor from political debates will also disengage from speaking up in general. When our leaders speak out on controversial issues, they may be cheered on by some, but are we fully aware of the unspoken reaction by others and the cost? The risk may be exacerbated when leaders tie their political opinions to the company’s values. If an employee disagrees with the leader’s political views, they now run the risk of being perceived as disagreeing with their employer’s values.
  • Evaluate whether surveys and other means of assessing employee engagement are sufficient. Are they able to indicate if self-censorship and disengagement are problems at your organization? It’s hard to tell since the effected employees have “gone underground” and don’t wish to speak up. If we are not aware of the scope of the problem and the depth of employee alienation, we may unwittingly have an overly optimistic picture of our organizational culture and be missing an entire employee population that is quietly frustrated or worse.

Read More: Don’t Encourage Employees to Speak Up if You’re not Ready to Listen

Managing the impact of politics on our organizations is nothing new; however, that impact is growing larger and more divisive. It is essential for ethics and compliance officers to be tuned into their colleagues and public sentiment to prevent a damaging political brand event and be prepared to remediate the downstream effects of such a failure.

Help Build a More Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Workplace

This article was originally published in NAVEX Global's Top 10 Risk & Compliance Trends for 2020 eBook. You can download the full eBook here

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