Office politics: The rise of populism and HR

HR must engage with a recent resurgence in populism and recognise the role organisations play in politics

On 7 May many in Europe and around the world breathed a sigh of relief. En Marche’s leader Emmanuel Macron had been declared president of France, beating his closest rival Front National leader Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen’s pledges to radically curb immigration, promote French business, and protect the economy from foreign investment and “European constraints” had touched a nerve among many French voters. But for others such pledges represented a dangerous brand of nationalism and a threat to global business and economic health – as well as social cohesion and harmony.

Le Pen’s rise and defeat is for many the latest instalment in a trend sweeping the Western world. First came Brexit, or rather Nigel Farage. Then the shock of Trump. And bubbling away in the background has been sharply increased support for other so-called populist leaders and parties – the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) party two examples.

But what exactly does the term ‘populism’ – which has received much air time and many column inches of late – actually mean? And what does it mean for the world of work, business, and HR?

Definitions are far from clear-cut. The term can encompass a range of views right across the ideological spectrum. But a useful, increasingly influential definition arrived at by political scientist at the University of Georgia Cas Mudde is that populism is a “thin ideology”, one that sets up a framework of a ‘pure’ people versus a corrupt elite. Similarly, for Jan-Werner Müller, a politics professor at Princeton University, populists are defined by their claim that they alone represent the people and that all others are illegitimate.

An age of anger

These definitions certainly chime with events here. It will take time – years in fact – to weigh up the positive versus negative fallout of Brexit. And reasons for voting to leave of course varied widely, with many logical arguments made.

But the accusation levelled against Nigel Farage, UKIP and the Leave campaign has been exactly that of misleading a certain segment of the population with a “thin ideology” and simple answers to complicated questions – of promising short-term improvements in voters’ personal prosperity through curbing immigration and EU spending. When the reality could be a great deal more complex.

With Le Pen defeated and UKIP support on the decline, you might assume that the recent wave of populist, nationalistic – and unfortunately in some circles racist – sentiment has now crested. But sticking with France as an example, Le Pen’s 33% share of the votes is almost double that won by her father Jean Marie Le Pen in 2002. Indeed minutes into his acceptance speech Macron acknowledged the “anger, anxiety and doubt” among people who voted for Le Pen; sentiment unlikely to fade any time soon, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London (UCL).

“It’s clear populism provides both a justification for anger and hope to those that are otherwise disenchanted with the status quo,” he says. “Inequality has risen and there are masses of people who have not reaped the benefits of globalisation…”

“There’s the change in the economy around loss of blue collar jobs and the rise of robotics, and then we are still seeing the outcomes of the great recession. When things get tough people want answers,” agrees Randall Peterson, professor of organisational behaviour and academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School. He adds that this, combined with social media, creates a perfect storm.

“It used to be: ‘this is what I think and what my parents think but I don’t know if this is [a] widely-held [belief]’,” he explains. “But now you can go on Twitter and Facebook and realise there are millions of people who think the same. So people feel confident this promised place is really going to be better.”

Red flags

Addressing an apparent surge in anger, particularly targeted against minority populations such as British Muslims or immigrant workers, has understandably been a priority for many since the Brexit vote a year ago. For CIPD’s people and strategy director Laura Harrison it’s about emphasising very clearly what is and is not acceptable.

“For HR there are a few red flags; some of the behaviours that are starting to become a bit more the norm on social media, whether in terms of minorities or religious groups, you have to keep your eye on your own intranets [for them]. So on a very practical level you have to think: what’s happening outside, how can we ensure that we don’t allow that to be replicated inside?

“Because there are behaviours people are picking up that they’re not going to shrug off just because they’re walking into the office… I think sometimes there’s a misperception that we all become rational human beings when we walk through the doors of our office. But that’s probably a bit of an illusion.”

For Maqsood Ahmad, a strategic clinical network manager at NHS England, HR must find out if people are experiencing discrimination and abuse outside of work. “You won’t necessarily see [hate crime] in professional contexts,” he says. “What you will see is a different form of minority stress that is not being acknowledged by the majority of organisations. Someone can be fine at work, but she walks in the community and people are removing her hijab.

“There’s nothing to stop a CEO sending a message out saying: ‘Islam is being talked about in a negative way but I’d just like to assure all my Muslim colleagues we’re on your side. Anyone feeling down or who is being attacked please let me know directly.’”

Such messaging will be similarly key in reassuring European employees post-Brexit, says Caroline Nugent, director of HR and OD at oneSource (shared support for the London boroughs of Havering and Newham), and new president of the PPMA. “Councils that have quite a high population from Europe, when Brexit happened, wrote to their staff and said: ‘we will help you to look at how to become a British citizen’,” she says. “That’s to take away that ‘us and them’ situation.”

It’s incumbent upon organisations not only to support those who may feel marginalised, adds Nugent, but also to address misconceptions, around job opportunities for example, that have led to such sentiment.

Local councils have particular responsibility here, she feels: “You have some councils that have completely changed demographically because of big influxes of people. So they’ve had to work to get some quite strong messages out that the borough would not be able to operate without these people taking a lot of the jobs, in the NHS for example.”

“You probably find 40% to 70% of people living in a borough working for the local authority,” she adds. “So it’s important we send the right messages because these people then obviously go back into their homes.”

Taking a stand

For many a resurgence of populist politics should also spur those in the private sector to take a more explicit stance on issues important to their success and brand – both in communications to employees and beyond.

Speaking up against misinformation will often be about explaining the necessary complexity of the world we live in, says Harrison. “There’s something about practically helping people navigate a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “Rather than being an organisation that pretends nothing is happening you can act as a translator and steady hand. There’s nothing to stop you interpreting manifestos for your employees: what this could mean for business, what this could mean for you as an employee.”

UK businesses could take their cue from the US in speaking out, says Tea Colaianni, NED and chair of RemCo at Mothercare and former group HRD at Merlin Entertainments. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky’s offer of free housing to those affected by the travel ban, and Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield’s delivery of an impassioned argument against the Trump administration’s actions, spring to mind.

“Brexit is a huge risk in terms of losing talent,” says Colaianni, reiterating the skills shortage concern shared by many. “So I think organisations have a responsibility to have strong values in terms of openness and transparency and showing employees what they’re all about, what they believe. They have a responsibility to make sense of the world to employees.

“More and more organisations are taking public positions. We’ve seen a lot of that in the States; it was very powerful and genuine.”

Of course the concept of taking stands and ‘being political’ is not something that will sit comfortably with all corporates. But perhaps this is an unfounded or confused fear. Business strategist and former CHRO at Honeywell and AES Corporation Rita Trehan points out there are ways for companies to speak out about decisions and ideologies they believe to be misguided or damaging, while keeping the focus firmly on business.

“I’m not a believer that you just react to these things, that you suddenly become more political or you suddenly start to have a voice just because certain kinds of politics are on the rise,” she says. “Great companies are firm in their values and beliefs and what they’re trying to do as a company.

“Those people coming out against Trump’s travel ban for instance, their arguments for me were less political and more about ‘this is a talent issue for us… we’re making a point that diversity is a competitive advantage in shaping the future health of the economy.’”

For Steve Hearsum, senior consultant at the Roffey Park Institute, avoiding ‘being political’, and articulating complexity are one and the same. Expressing a position in a detailed way should always involve acknowledging alternative viewpoints: “The best example I came across was the CEO at Gatwick [Stewart Wingate] being questioned on Brexit last year. He basically said: ‘my own view and the organisation’s view is that on balance leaving would be a bad thing and here’s why’. He articulated that position in a way that left room for the other side.”

Leading through complexity

Which gets us to the ‘how’ of organisations helping people get to grips with complex realities and winning back their trust. As Hearsum’s comments suggest, leadership is key.

The CIPD’s Harrison points out the power of leaders ‘showing their workings’. “You might assume everyone thinks you’re competent because you’re a leader but you need to make it more obvious,” she says. “So HR people can help leaders by helping them explain their workings out… Because if all people hear is the outcome, they’ve not seen the 18 months of analysis that gets you there, that doesn’t necessarily build their confidence.”

For Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, helping people accept complexity is about weaning them off the idea of a ‘superstar’ leader who has all the answers. “It’s getting away from the idea of individuals and leaders and more towards systems and processes that lead people,” he says. “For many organisations you don’t need a leader in that sense.”

But there is perhaps still something to be learned from populist leadership. The criticism oft-levelled at the Remain campaign since the Brexit result was after all that it failed to present the rationale for staying in a compelling, relatable way.

“The difficulty is that complexity is a hard sell,” says Benjamin Moffitt, postdoctoral research fellow at Stockholm University, and author of The Global Rise of Populism. “That’s the thing organisations and the liberal left struggle with. It’s much easier to say ‘let’s build a wall’. So just presenting the facts is no longer enough. It needs to be tied to some kind of narrative or needs some kind of emotional pull or framing.

“You have to acknowledge that the likes of Trump and Farage are good at presenting their position in evocative and interesting ways,” he continues. “I would argue that populism needs to be understood less as an ideology and more as a performative style. The performative style populists adopt is highly effective in tapping into emotions.”

Most crucial, says Richard Jolly, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, is the ability to listen. “If there was one skill I could give politicians and business leaders that is more important now than ever, it’s that,” he says. “Because before you just said ‘I have a sense what’s right for business and the country’ and now that’s not good enough. That ability to be really open-minded and not assume you have all the answers and you’re the elite because of how clever you are is a fundamental shift.”

Jolly’s comments chime powerfully with another oft-cited criticism made against Remainers and those challenging populist leaders, like Trump, further afield. The left and indeed the establishment, it’s now fairly widely accepted, have failed to properly listen to and understand the concerns and convictions of anxious, angry voters. As Jolly suggests, this inability will no longer do in an age with at least a semblance or expectation of increased transparency and accountability. It may in fact entrench those views being disregarded.

Listening spaces

So could workplaces become spaces that counteract this wider listening malaise? Many would answer yes. “HR needs to develop new models of allowing voices to be heard in a safe way,” says Gillian Quinton, strategic director of resources and business transformation at Buckinghamshire County Council.

“I appreciate we’ve got to be careful as well; there must be some sort of rules and framework. But within that we’ve got to enable people to feel they have a voice and can express an opinion. If you really want to engender the concept of free speech and let everyone’s voices be heard then set up debating societies. We have something called ‘Swan Speakers’ here so that people practise their presentation skills too.”

Briner agrees: “You could argue the workplace is a good place, like maybe school is, to have some of these debates – because you’re thrown together with all kinds of people you wouldn’t normally mix with,” he says. “HR could take a role to facilitate that. Because to deny that people have these feelings on other people and political views could be dangerous. It doesn’t change people’s attitudes to say you just can’t discuss it.”

Creating such cultures will require a deep shift in how employers approach politics at work, however. “This stuff is quite raw because we don’t have experience of dealing with these kinds of political differences,” says Hearsum. “But why is my differing political and social value set, if I’m not making demands that you leave the country, why is that more difficult to work with than differences around gender, race, sexuality and disability?”

Creating open dialogue in this way requires HR to step up its D&I game and not shy away from difficult, perhaps politics-related conversations, he explains. “HR needs to spend longer doing what they’ve said for a long time they need to be better at, which is modelling adult behaviours and encouraging others to do the same. If HR can’t model having an adult conversation about politics, why on earth should anyone else?”

For Joan Williams, founding director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California and author of White Working Class, HR must be brave about drawing a clear distinction between statements that are unacceptable, but not shutting down all difficult conversations out of ‘political correctness’ panic.

“I think people need to understand that we categorise a very broad range of quite different behaviours as racism,” she says. “White supremacists becoming more mainstream is nothing but profoundly disturbing. But if someone says you should have British jobs for British people, that may just be an expression of a certain vision of social solidarity that should not be written off.”

It’s corporate governance

So many would argue the importance of recognising that racist, unacceptable sentiment only constitutes a small fraction of populist-policy voters; to simply dismiss concerns around jobs and globalisation as such could prove dangerous. Most important, as Hearsum and Williams emphasise, is that organisations not just allow people to air difficult views, but really listen to what’s being said – to find out why disillusionment with the status quo and establishment have reached fever pitch.

Once they do they’ll hear loud and clear that many of those areas of anger and frustration sit firmly with employers, says Norman Pickavance, former board partner at Grant Thornton and former group HR director Morrisons. While politics may be where frustrations have manifested themselves, corporate PLC has many of the solutions, he asserts, citing disillusionment with executive pay, unethical financial services conduct, the threat of automation, and insecure work.

“Perhaps Brexit might be a wake-up call to remind those boards responsible for the long-term futures of organisations that if they continue to be completely extractive in their thinking markets ultimately can fail,” he comments.

“It’s corporate governance,” agrees Geoff Wood, dean of Essex Business School and co-author of the paper ‘The Rise of Right Wing Populism and Its Effect on HRM’. “It’s ultimately the failure of regulation and of a certain ecosystem that has resulted in a pattern of HR practices. It goes right to the heart of things like pensions and how we understand these obligations… A lot is about failure of the strategy of organisations where certain types of investors drive HR strategies.

“If you look at who voted for Brexit it was people who were downwardly socially mobile,” he adds. “Though they’re relatively prosperous they don’t feel prosperous. It’s typically people approaching retirement, aware they’re going to be reliant on pensions that are non-existent… Basically people doing middle-class jobs who feel employment and occupation is more insecure.”

So the rise of populism ultimately goes to the core of the way companies do business and behave. It goes straight to the heart of the paramount, fundamental role organisations can play in a population’s lives: providing stable and meaningful work. “Companies need to realise that if they don’t like the current political climate, one of the key interventions they can make is providing good stable jobs for people in their areas,” comments the University of California’s Williams.

Which means organisations must start thinking much more creatively and laterally around inclusivity and recruitment, says the NHS’s Ahmad. He says that most still simply post an ad and wait for people to come to them. Instead they must recognise the huge value in seeking out sections of the population who might have historically assumed a job in the NHS, say, wasn’t a possibility for ‘people like them’.

“We start by doing mapping. We’ve already got the information on high unemployment hot spots where people’s fathers and their fathers and mothers have never worked; we know young white men feel completely left out of the system, for example,” says Ahmad. “So we have HR people going out to those communities.”

Ahmad’s comments touch on an issue critical for D&I professionals to get to grips with, for Williams. She says current anger among many white working class men in particular springs from being treated as a privileged class when they feel far from it.

“There’s been a shift so that social justice has become defined as equality for women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, at exactly the time the working class’s economic fortunes have plummeted… The shorthand for who dominates is white men. So white working class men hear themselves described as privileged and know they aren’t and feel angry,” she says. Williams advises that D&I programmes must become much more attuned to class. You only have to think of the acceptableness of referring in a derogatory way to a ‘builder’s bum’ to realise class discrimination is rife and strangely acceptable in today’s society, she adds.

Reskilling and representing

A crucial responsibility for organisations around employment, says LBS’s Peterson, is helping people retrain and redefine their work identities as certain jobs disappear. “Trying to reskill people is not a simple thing,” he says. “That sense of ‘do I belong here?’ is really important… People think ‘I’ve been a coal miner for decades’, so how do we help them re-identify and believe they could easily work in a manufacturing facility, for example?”

Employee voice through the lens of improved corporate governance becomes about formal mechanisms to listen to employees, points out Pickavance, referencing growing support from many quarters, including government, for board-level employee representation.

He adds the urgency of all of this activity. “Brexit was a very easy target to conjure for people about the source of their concerns, but I suspect, and worry, that over the next decade people will see that Brexit wasn’t actually the source. I think there’s a very serious risk of people becoming more disillusioned if it doesn’t fix things,” he says.

The threat of an increasingly divided and disharmonious employee and wider population should be motivation enough. Failing that, organisations should think carefully about the kind of regulatory environment that could be ushered in, says Pickavance.

“I think many companies assume because they’ve operated in a highly benign environment they have licence to operate on behalf of society,” he says. “At the point where that no longer seems the case the risk is some of those self-governing frameworks will be removed.”

Guy Standing, professor of development studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and author of books exploring precarious work, agrees. “There is a fear that politicians and the current agenda could make for a very unstable economic situation and that’s the last thing businesses want,” he says. He adds though that companies should be more open to working with politicians, even putting pressure on them, to devise a balanced and fair regulatory environment before a more restrictive one is imposed.

“Businesses should be stepping up and putting pressure on politicians to say ‘we need growth opportunities to prosper, but we don’t want a situation where millions of our fellow citizens are living in insecurity’,” he says, adding: “Because over the last three decades policies of liberalisation and globalisation have been pursued without much opposition.”

Nothing new

But for many businesses and public sector organisations none of this activity around responsible, sustainable corporate governance, leadership and D&I should be anything new, points out Sandy Begbie, chief people officer at Standard Life.

“Making sure we’re a sustainable business – so well-run, well-governed, with top people in leadership positions – is not something new for good companies with a strong sense of purpose,” he says. “It might change the emphasis a bit… but good businesses have been doing this for a long time.”

Neither should – with the emphasis perhaps on should – this approach be anything new to HR. But a rise in populist politics, and the climate of fear and uncertainty at its root, throws the opportunity for HR to step up into sharp relief.

“For really good HRDs the opportunity is great,” says Begbie. “I’ve always maintained HR should be the social conscience of the organisation and what the organisation’s doing to maintain sustainable business. Populism is raising the profile of that activity.”

The CIPD’s Harrison agrees: “It strikes me that if you’re a HR person that’s been banging the drum on D&I for a long time and not getting much attention you can in a sense use this as your burning platform.”

She adds the positive opportunity that a surge in desire for change represents. (After all Macron, having formed his political party just a year ago, is arguably more of an anti-establishment newcomer than Le Pen.)

“The downside of populism is aggressive, divisive and incredibly dystopian,” says Harrison. “The upside is if you’re prepared to listen to people they’re usually coming from wanting life to be better.”