How Should Companies Address Worker Voice in Election Season?

9/13/19

Regular “Wild Side” readers will know I’ve been talking a lot about employees using social networks to express collective voice.  The viral explosion of #MeToo in 58 countries, the #GoogleWalkout, and Wayfair on goods supplied to border detainees, to name a few.   


We have seen the emergence of new workplace protest phenomena, including the “Pop Up Protest” (a protest without membership fees and infrastructure), concerted pressure on CEOs directed at personal and company reputation damage, and the unintended activist—Susan Fowler and Uber and the Office Assistant at Carrier.   

The other trend we’ve seen is the move from employment-based complaints—for example, executives behaving badly and the working conditions of contractors—to employee complaints on company products and who they are sold to, to encouraging leaders and companies to take a public political stance on issues.

With the Democratic Party selection process for the U.S. election in full swing for 2020 and what I believe is the increasing likelihood of a new UK vote “in or out” of the EU either prior to or as part of a General Election, I predict we will see the political pressuring of companies move into high gear.  The time to think about responses is not when it happens¬—the time is right now.  

Employees are less and less happy with responses like “it’s the people that vote, not the company.”  They want to know what parties the company and its leaders support financially and to see expressions of position on parties, candidates, and policies.  Our workforces were divided in their views on the Trump immigration bill protest across the U.S. technology sector.  Internal discussion forums were split between those beseeching chief executives to act and those vociferously supporting the President’s line.  Right now, some of us with employees in Hong Kong have felt how tough it can be to find a line between sympathy for the right to protest and the desire not to get involved in high politics. 

No one wants to stifle political debate.  But workplace forums are not the place to do it.  Think now about making your position clear before a heated discussion starts. 

You can’t generally prevent employees from talking about workplace conditions.  You need to make a choice on how you deal with employee voice on what you make and who you sell it to.  But, unless you want to make an official political statement, you should think about making the rules of the game clear to employees before the question arises.  

Tell employees that company forums are not for political comment.  Employees will have differing views and these should be respected, but those personal views should not be tied to an individual’s association with the company nor attributed to it.  The company must work positively with the government of the day, not respond to internal pressures to declare sides, and finally inform them that inappropriate commentary will be deleted.   

Censorship of employee voice on employment issues is illegal in many parts of the world. Shutting down commentary on products, suppliers, and customers may be better re-channeled than shut down.  But allowing company airways to be used for political leverage is something to be avoided—unless you are prepared for internal argument and the public consequences.