There’s a very contentious debate around right now, about whether corporations should speak up or not speak at all on social agendas. There are many more answers beyond just yes or no, and a much more nuanced conversation around options.
This week we were delighted to speak at the National DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) Conference for AHRI (the Australian Human Resource Institute).
We led a conversation around the role of organisations speaking up in favour or against, or staying quiet, on social agendas, or social causes.
Since then, a lot of people have contacted us and asked us to repeat what we framed as the 4 options, so writing this very short piece to restate them.
The discussion was proposed in the context of the increasing divides in Australian (and global) society and communities. Of particular reference was four key recent events:
- The recent referendum, and the demand for, and backlash against, corporate organisations that had an opinion,
- The Israel/Gaza/Hamas/Middle East War, and public protests, hostile media and social media towards organisations and individuals, who either supported one side or the other, or sought to support peace without taking sides.
- The increasing public debate, and recent Hollywood strikes around AI, Technology, and their impact on the expected increase to the wealth divide
- Around the HR profession, where specific groups want greater use of corporate power and voices to support social change, and others challenging the legitimacy of corporations having any voice beyond their actual work.
This has left many organisations, CEOs, leaders, and particularly people and culture leaders, navigating this very difficult set of agendas, as the societal divides flow into every workplace and workforce.
So, we set up to try and navigate the potential role of corporates and leaders in social agendas, looking at the positives and the challenges attached to each option. Our ambition was to:
- Appreciating the critical role of context: which issues are right for which organisations (and which industries) to speak up on, and why and when.
- Considering where organisations speaking up might be detrimental to social issues or change, or detrimental their team,
- Supporting HR/P&C leaders and professionals to navigate the divides as organisations decide whether to have a voice or not on a particular issue, and advise their organisation on how to best create space for decision to be made
- Looking forward at ways HR can play a role in allowing open and respectful debate, while ensuring safety for all employees.
Ultimately, we simply wanted to see whether workplaces could be a force for good in preventing, and/or healing the further and deeper divides that are opening up everywhere.
It’s easy enough to say “stick to you knitting and leave social agendas for society, and democracy to decide”. It’s certainly an option, and a very attractive one today.
But it ignores the role of workforces and workplaces being active parts of of society.
There is the importance of public debate and discourse, and that that will flow from society and community, into the workplace. So, you have to wonder whether there is potential to bridge divides and keep community connected, and civil, while supporting changes that move things moving forward, regardless of we feel – or vote – personally.
We should be acutely conscious, and even wary, that in the most recent Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer, which surveyed 32,000 people globally, (and more than 1150 Australians), it showed that our country is ‘moderately polarised’ but close to being ‘in danger of severe polarisation’. Almost half of Australians (45%) think our nation is more divided today than at any point in history.
And we know, from a wide variety of research including research from Associate Professor, Ruchi Sinha, from the University of South Australia – that ‘sub-groups’ can drive distrust, break collaboration, and hamper decision-making. They slow knowledge sharing and thwart innovative problem solving’. In short, they hurt teams and they hurt teamwork.
So, there’s good reasons to at least consider that work and workplaces, and leaders, can play a positive role?
And that’s not a Yes or No answer, but more so, a consideration of options.
To us, there are 4 options.
Options might include
Option A: Organisations playing an important role in speaking up, and supporting major societal debates, decisions, and change (e.g., Marriage Equality, Recent Voice Referendum)
Option B: Organisations playing strongly to CSR but not in societal or political issues (e.g., supporting a specific charity, particularly where there is a charity related to the work)
Option C: Organisations and investors having a critical leadership role in reporting on ans being transparent on societal issues. (e.g., taking a forward-facing stance on issues such as climate change or through ESG reporting)
Option D: 4. Organisations, leaders, and/or investors, ‘sticking to their knitting’ and being silent on societal issues, letting the population decide.
All four are valid and reasonable choices.
So, how to decide on the right option to speak or not to speak
We live in a complex, complicated, and sensitive society right now.
We share the overwhelm of so many difficult issues, and also the opportunity within these same issues. There’s no doubting that corporations have significant power, so the question is if, and how, to use that power for the good of the organisation and the society you work in.
So, how to decide to speak or not to speak:
The answer to that there is no right answer.
It is a considered organisational decision, dependent on the organisational purpose, strategy, and work, the topic and agenda we’re talking about, and even how we decide on when and how to take a stance, and if and how we might impact it positively.
It is about opening up the conversation and purpose of why you’d speak, or not speak, and decide agenda by agenda what is right for the following:
- Your strategy, business purpose, work and values?
- From consultation and consideration, what’s right for your team – employees and customers? What matters to them? How can you best support what is most important to them?
- From honest reflection, whether you’re credibly and authentically able to speak to an agenda? You don’t have to be perfect, but credibility is important to avoid cynicism, and harming what you’re speaking for.
- Whether you can do good for the society you live, work, and do business in?
Sounds easy, but of course, it’s not.
Org by org.
Industry by industry.
Agenda by agenda.
Moment by moment.
Start with openness and curiosity.
Move to do the best you can do.