Pushing for progress: the workplace's role in political and social movements

With workforces becoming increasingly active in political and social movements, what are the benefits and potential pitfalls HR should look out for?

The relationship between business and politics is complicated. The popularity of brands, products and services can wax and wane as the political consensus shifts and consumers opt to spend money with businesses that are aligned with their own values.

In 2020, this often means that we choose to buy fairtrade products, wonky vegetables and shampoo bars because they represent the social and political outcomes we want to see. The products we purchase are extensions of ourselves. And just as the consumer aligns its values with a brand, so too does an employee with its workplace.

Across the globe, there has been a rise in businesses becoming directly involved in social and political movements. Companies may choose to sponsor Pride events, make donations to movements such as Black Lives Matter or give a proportion of their profits to environmental charities. All of which will influence how a potential employee assesses a business – we all want to feel we are working for an employer that gives back.

There has always been opportunity for businesses to support social movements, but, as consumer habits have changed, it is now becoming a requirement for companies to take a stance. Workplaces are influenced by political and economic forces, so for HR, it isn’t a case of whether or not to get involved in the conversation, but rather how to navigate that conversation to keep employees feeling appreciated, respected and listened to.

Black Lives Matter

The fastest growing social movement of recent times has been Black Lives Matter (BLM). Although the campaign started in 2013, it remained a relatively small movement until the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the city’s police force brought it into the wider public consciousness, after which it grew exponentially.

Footage of Floyd’s final moments was quickly posted on social media, triggering unrest, anger and frustration across the globe. Communities began to mobilise, and educational resources that focused on the black experience were shared igniting a discourse across dinner tables, Whatsapp groups and workplaces.

Businesses began to join in on the conversation, posting black squares on Instagram in solidarity as part of a media blackout, and publishing their often rapidly drafted zero-tolerance statements towards racism in their organisations. A new discourse was developed, encouraging communities and workplaces to be more than just ‘not racist’ but actively ‘anti-racist’ instead, demonstrating the power of some issues to transcend politics to become a human issue.

The CIPD has since launched an anti-racism hub to provide practical advice for HR on tackling racism in the workplace as a response to more workers asking leaders what they are doing to tackle the issue. Politics may have started the movement, but it is now embedded in our social discourse. So, where does this leave HR?

For some, like Tolu Farinto, a change-maker at consultancy Utopia, businesses ought to be more outwardly involved in issues, like the BLM movement, that are affecting their workforce.

He says: “Before it’s even considered as a political issue, it is a human rights issue. What BLM has highlighted is 'not being racist' isn't enough, businesses have to be anti-racist, and in doing so unpick the barriers created by systemic inequality and racism. The consequence of not doing this is that your business will no longer be attractive to diverse talent, and you will struggle to retain them."

Farinto argues that businesses can no longer absolve themselves from social conversations given the important role workplaces play in our daily lives. He adds: “Our workplaces and societies are driven by politics and economics. I assume that most people in organisations vote, so within this landscape, HR’s primary function should be to support, protect and uphold the rights and wellbeing of its people.”

For years HR has been dealing with, and in many instances improving, a lack of diversity within the UK workforce. Many businesses now include diversity and inclusion as a fundamental strategy in their business development plans. But Shakil Butt, former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide, says HR has yet to properly deal with the issue.

“Many HR functions will not have tackled racism as an organisational issue, so there would be work to be done on every front. HR would need to agree with leadership what the business appetite for change is. It is a difficult conversation to have but a necessary one if a business is genuine about trying to respond to racism.

“Like any strategic decision, tackling racism needs to be considered through the usual governance structures of having measurable outcomes, consideration of risks and mitigation, a budget, ownership and reporting.”

Using social to boost the cause

Social media is often cited as the reason more businesses are choosing to have a political voice. Not only is it another way for companies to interact with their clients, but is also an opportunity to welcome new customers, particularly through likes and shares of positive initiatives.

Farinto uses the example of ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s as evidence of the positives that can come out of businesses making political statements. It published a ‘Silence is NOT an Option’ post on its website and social channels last month that set out a four-step plan towards anti-racism in the US. “It’s not reactionary – the brand has been politically active for years now, which gives this message the genuine authority to do good and make real change,” he says.

“In terms of negative examples, you only have to look as far as Pepsi trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement with its Kendall Jenner ad. It’s been three years and it’s still routinely mocked – nobody’s forgetting that in a hurry.”

Here, Farinto demonstrates the difficult line organisations must toe to be in tune with their employees and the wider public. Get it wrong, and they will be accused of ‘virtue signalling’, the disparaging term which means someone demonstrates their righteousness through an act or statement to garner praise or acknowledgement.

HR must therefore make sure it is contributing to these debates in a thoughtful, meaningful way, says CIPD membership director David D’Souza. “The worst thing HR teams can do is have a knee-jerk reaction. They need to listen, consider and only then come up with an action plan. That said, failing to act out of fear is failing to address the situation and is the same as being complicit.

“Just as we’ve seen with some commercial companies that have got it wrong, tokenistic gestures which are not sincere are seen through quickly and it backfires badly. HR teams run the same risk. The key is to properly commit to change and make sure that accountability is taken for mistakes but also for making improvements.”

Butt recommends including employee voices in the development of any new strategies and making sure external messaging is reflective of the internal reality of an organisation. He adds: “Failing to walk the talk internally could be potentially disastrous in the social media age with employees being able to expose the mismatch of marketing with the lived reality through platforms like Glassdoor or even a single tweet that goes viral.”

HR must also do its research to fully understand the movement it is supporting. An example of this going wrong is at the BBC, which back-tracked on a decision to allow its presenters and guests to wear BLM badges after the campaign was accused of “hijacking” George Floyd’s death for political reasons. The UK wing of the movement had criticised the Israeli army and called on the British government to defund the police.

Though many at the BBC agreed with the idea that racism transcends politics, some of BLM’s other statements were more politically aligned and controversial, meaning the broadcaster could not throw its weight behind it.

As more workers wake up to the reality of a lack of diversity in boardrooms, office spaces and recruitment, HR is going to have to work harder than simply putting out a statement of support for movements such as BLM.

Social responsibility of corporates needs to go beyond generating profits for shareholders and adhering to the social ethics of the time. Instead of simply riding the waves of public opinion, companies will now need to make internal changes to align with their external messaging – and this is where HR can provide a leading role.

Taking pride

A similar trend has taken place in the LGBT+ community. Pride events grew out of protests against police raids on the Stonewall Inn and have since become a celebration of LGBT+ identity and a way to raise awareness of the inequalities surrounding sexuality.

What used to be a fringe organisation has gone mainstream, with large corporations such as Barclays, Lloyds and Marks & Spencer adapting their logos to include the pride flag. Similarly, many organisations now sponsor floats to showcase their encouragement of diversity, but there remains an underlying scepticism as to who really profits from this support.

A rainbow across a logo may signal to workers and potential recruits that the business is open to everyone, including those who may have been concerned that their sexuality would hold them back at work. But once again, it is deeds, not words, that are important, and if a company does not reinforce its external support for LGBT+ movements by fostering a welcoming workplace, the repercussions could be hugely damaging.

Large companies have wide-reaching influence, so HR needs to make sure that whatever benefit the organisation gets for supporting a movement, in terms of new talent or custom, the reason the movement was set up also needs to be supported, too.

The digital age is helping to name and shame those companies not living up to the mark. One Google search of Pride 2020 comes up with a list of articles featuring the organisations which “actually support Pride.” The consumer, and therefore the employee, is well aware of the corporate gains of public statements of support without any real change.

Jamie Love, marketing manager at Pride Edinburgh, agrees with this cynicism, arguing that businesses which are vocal in their support but do little to help are ticking time bombs. He says: “The LGBT+ community is very united and very vocal. The effects of this on brand perception are huge, not to mention the HR ramifications. Diverse people will actively avoid applying to roles within the company and may attract more single-minded people that will only contribute to the problem.”

Authenticity goes a long way

Love therefore argues that the best way for HR to get involved with events such as Pride is to be authentic. “Pride doesn’t mean updating your logo for 30 days and hiring a branded bus on a Saturday afternoon. Pride should live in organisations every day of the year.”

Is there a risk of aligning society too close to corporate interests by encouraging business involvement in these movements? “Many want Pride to be completely free of corporates, branding and sponsorship. Unfortunately, most of the time these are the same people who would not be willing to donate or pay for Pride themselves,” Love says.

“Corporate sponsorship is what makes Pride possible but also what may kickstart conversations internally as to how a company embraces diversity in the workplace. In my opinion, corporate sponsorship is vital to the continued success of Pride. Bigger Prides give us bigger platforms to affect more change.”

Yes, there are pitfalls, but there are plenty of good takeaways for businesses that get it right. ¬The weight of companies highlighting key social issues and campaigning for change can make a real difference in terms of social attitudes and can also connect employees within an organisation.

An internal memo sent around the office demonstrating to employees that their firm stands with BLM or Pride, for example, could open up conversations around diversity issues that others may not have felt comfortable to raise, or educate those who were scared to say the wrong thing.

Employee alienation

HR could run the risk of alienating certain areas of its workforce if it does decide to be vocal, yet Love questions whether attempting to appease these employees is worthwhile. An organisation’s involvement in social movements is representative of its values, but what happens when not everyone agrees what these should be?

“The general feeling is that the system is very focused on not upsetting the few when in a lot of cases the few usually belong to a majority outside the organisation,” says Love. “What organisations should be doing instead is asking themselves whether those employees fit with the company culture and values. As opposed to just responding to a complaint they should be questioning whether that individual fits in the organisation.”

This minority could also be preventing others from bringing their ‘whole selves’ to work. Case study after case study has shown that employees who bring their true, authentic selves to work perform better, are more engaged and stay at a company longer.

Yet Kris Karsten, HR director at Ceridian, argues respect for and understanding of different views is at the heart of company diversity and should therefore be encouraged as a strength.

He says: “A person’s politics are almost uniquely personal, hence the famous saying that at parties you shouldn’t discuss politics, religion or money. In the workplace no employee should feel like they are not entitled to their own legitimate political beliefs, or that they were somehow at odds with the politics of the company broadly.

“People should feel confident having different political views, and able to express them respectfully at work should they wish – as long as they’re not discriminatory or prejudicial in any way.”

However, Karsten says there are some movements that go beyond the spectrum of reasonable discussion. He says: “There are some movements today which transcend politics and demand everyone’s support. There is no counterargument to the fight against racism, for example. We all have to be on the same side to eradicate racism in society for good.”

Showing support is therefore dependent on getting employee buy-in, with important issues addressed from the top down. “It can be difficult to please everybody, but by making sure people feel respected and heard and explaining the basis for the decision, you’ll minimise any dissatisfaction,” Karsten adds. “Humility and respect are really important values in these processes. If you got a decision wrong in the past, acknowledge that. Employees will respect you and the brand more.”

HR’s role

The movements companies get involved in lend themselves to the D&I sector, which often a fundamental pillar of any holistic HR strategy. For Marc Weedon, senior HR executive, the time for HR to learn about the issues is over and it must now step into the fore.

He says: “The bigger picture piece is to move from just being socially aware, with a strong sense of right and wrong, to actually underpinning this with knowledge, passion and action-orientation.

“HR now needs to support and guide leadership as they wrestle with this and understand and champion allyship as the best way of engagement. Not just BLM, but for other sections of society in various countries who have been systematically marginalised.”

A safe space for all employees must also be a requirement, Weedon says, from activists through to those who do not want to articulate their thoughts at work.

D’Souza agrees, arguing HR doesn’t need to navigate opinion, but instead ensure there’s a safe space for these opinions to be voices. He says: “Inclusion comes from actions but also understanding, and intentionally fostering an environment where people can explore their thinking and learn more is a positive step towards improved workplaces for all. There is obviously a degree of risk of conflict in any area that is closely tied to people’s rights and identity, so all work has to be done with care and patience.”

Once HR has the buy-in it needs, it can begin to support these movements through different initiatives such as ethnicity pay gap reporting, blind CVs, de-biasing tools and mentorship schemes. Yet when it comes to global organisations, it is important to treat each country in a slightly different way to respect culture and traditions. For example, in France it is illegal for an employer to openly discuss or enquire about an employee’s sexuality, therefore asking LGBT+ employees to join a new committee could end HR in hot water.

However, where it is possible, HR should be stepping up, Love says. “Organisations and HR need to decide whether they want to be part of the problem or whether they want to take an active part in the solution, he says. “Change is inevitable, as mentioned, Millennials and Gen Zs are passionate activists who will make a real difference. Active is the key word here, don’t be passive and just do nothing or do the easy thing, i.e. ‘rainbow up’ your logo.

“Professionals need to ask themselves whether they want to be the ones celebrated and admired in workplaces for making the tough calls, for standing up to discrimination and promoting diversity or whether they’re happy to continuously drive talent away because of their lack of action.”

So, will we see a more political workforce in the future? With social media increasingly saturating our lives, it’s become increasingly difficult for corporations to hide away from the big issues. But Karsten argues that politics has always played a large part in industry and capitalism over many centuries.

He adds: “My ask as an HR leader in today’s rapidly changing landscape would be how the workforce has identified with what they do? Do the employees feel like they have a purpose at work, and have they connected with their organisation, it’s culture and values?

“And what are those values, exactly? Politics can be a very divisive matter, and the workplace should foster positive behaviours that build respect and integrity, despite our many differences. Our differences are what make us unique, but compassion, tolerance and acceptance is what defines our nature.”

The full piece of the above appears in the July/August 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.