Cultural controversies are now litigated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From social media to Sunday church, from newspapers to late-night comedy shows, from family dinners to classrooms, there is no avoiding cultural warfare, no missing the us vs. them narratives. These controversies about who we are and what we believe have arrived in the American workplace.

That is for the best. In 2020, the trend in corporate culture has been to acknowledge issues of identity, class, diversity, conscience and privilege. I believe we have grown more aware and empathetic as a result of discussing these issues at work.

However, this trend can set personal ethics, brand values and corporate financial interests on a collision course. In 2021, CEOs should expect to face these situations. Let’s explore how to handle them with grace and respect.

Power in the Workplace

Why this happening and why now? In the early 2000s, employers were aggressively apolitical and steered clear of culture wars. Today, I believe values and identity have become part of the 21st century work culture. 

This trend began in the 2010s as the US economy surged out of recession. The perceived shortage of high-skilled STEM workers gave them immense power in the talent market. A consensus formed that to win the so-called war for talent, companies would have to offer better perks, more flexibility, more frequent promotions, and more self-determination to skilled millennials.

During the same years, surveys found that employees increasingly wanted to work for organizations that aligned with their personal mission and values. Many millennials stated they would consider taking a pay cut for that opportunity. Yet unable to find their Shangri-La of employers, workers hoped instead to create utopia at their existing workplaces — even when doing so could be bad for the company’s finances.

For instance, tech workers have pressured their employers to cancel contracts with the Department of Defense, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and police departments. They refuse to lend their talents to organizations that don’t align with their beliefs.

More recently, employees at Spotify have raised concerns about the controversial guests and ideas hosted on The Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast acquired by Spotify for $100 million earlier this year. Their CEO is caught between the First Amendment, protecting an investment, and acknowledging employees who are disturbed by Rogan’s show.

Related Article: These 2020 Trends Will Shape the 2021 Workplace

Don’t Assume Agreement

Conflict between individual ethics, brand values and financial interests is inevitable at companies that are culturally and politically diverse. At some point, you will face pressure to cancel a contract, decline a new customer, withhold a nonprofit donation, or make decisions that, no matter what, will offend, disappoint, or alienate someone.

Learning Opportunities

We've had our fair share of these throughout 2020. Some examples include making donations to local organizations for COVID-19 emergency relief shortly after cutting other expenses (including layoffs); supporting causes that mitigate violence and prevent the destruction of private property amidst social unrest; and navigating differences of opinion on speech and censorship of content. The framework I used for these (and other previous matters) has helped us think through the risks. 

A framework appeals to a common set of interests and values while allowing individuals to remain true to their conscience. It converts a CEO’s personal choice into a company’s impersonal decision. The framework that has worked for my firm, Widen, uses three dimensions of risk:

  1. Legal Risk. Could a decision one way or the other increase your liability? If so, how, and what evidence do you have? Bring in legal counsel to advise you. 
  2. Brand Risk. If your employees, customers, community members and shareholders learned that you donated to a certain cause or canceled a certain contract, how would they react? How does your reputation change among these stakeholders if you make a decision in either direction? Would customers fear their contract also being cancelled and seek a new vendor? Conversely, could you be seen as endorsing something unjust or illegal? Does providing your services to an organization constitute endorsement?
  3. Security Risk. Could your decision put employees in physical danger or put the organization at higher risk of cyberattacks? How does your decision change the safety and security of your stakeholders?    

Related Article: 2021: Let's Bring Our Whole Selves Back to the Workplace

What the Framework Misses

By far the most important thing is to discuss these situations face-to-face with employees. Regardless of your decision, demonstrate that you’ve listened and empathize with their concerns. Show through words and actions that you care about your employees and cherish their wellbeing.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree with their position. Whatever you decide, show your work and reasoning. Point to the framework that applies to these decisions. It is difficult to articulate the impact of this discussion, but when you put humans in front of humans, talk through your differences on major issues, and hear each other out, professional maturity kicks in.

In 2021, many leaders will find themselves wedged between uncomfortable alternatives. Be transparent about your framework and apply it consistently. Although you won’t please everyone, you can at least earn their respect. It will be hard, but it is best that we face these challenges in the workplace. The alternative is to repress who we are and what we believe.

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