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Charting a path for corporate activism in times of turmoil

Empower your colleagues to identify what causes should really be supported and in what practical way, so they can take passionate ownership of initiatives that you can endorse with ‘time off’, funding or leveraging other organisational resources.

By now, you will have heard the sentiment “Go woke, go broke” in response to companies taking a stand on progressive social and political causes.

These can range from LGBTQ+ rights, #MeToo, BlackLivesMatter, and other race issues to support or criticism of specific political figures, from global conflicts such as the wars in Gaza and Ukraine to pro or anti-vaxing and the recent Roe vs Wade abortion ruling.

Corporate activism refers to companies and businesses engaging in social or political issues outside of their traditional business activities. This can include lobbying efforts, campaign contributions, and other forms of political engagement aimed at promoting the company’s or industry’s interests. Companies may actively address social and environmental issues within their own operations and supply chains. For example, they could prioritize implementing sustainable business practices, promoting diversity and inclusion, supporting community development, and/or reducing their carbon footprint.

A study of more than 30,000 consumers in 35 countries by Accenture found that 62% of consumers want companies to take a stand on social, cultural, environmental, and political issues, and 65% of consumers say that they are more likely to buy from a brand that supports a cause they care about,” says Shaun Smith.

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer research indicated that 57 % of consumers would boycott or buy a brand on political, social, or moral issues they favor.

While taking a stand, companies should align with their unique business vision and values. Otherwise, it could be seen as positioning for the sake of PR. This is termed ‘woke-washing’ and is scorned among communities. The most believable impact is where the position adopted is authentic to the business and its core values.

Business as a catalyst for change

In 2006, TOMS (California-based shoe designer and marketer) Blake Mycoskie pioneered the One for One® model – giving away one pair of shoes for every pair sold, supporting larger health, education, and community development programs through strategic partnerships. Since its inception, TOMS has positively impacted more than 100,000,000 lives and continues to contribute one-third of its profits to grassroots organizations.

Mycoskie says, “TOMS was built on the idea that business can be a catalyst for positive change. Our commitment to giving back is at the heart of our company. Through our One for One model and other initiatives, we aim to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people in need.”

Core values as a compass 

To help combat the pandemic, Esri, the global market leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, location, intelligence and mapping, made all its software, virtual training, and on-call technical assistance freely available to organizations across the globe dealing with COVID-19.  “Addressing the pandemic can be seen as part of Esri’s common mission of bringing geographic science, GIS technology, and geographic thinking to every organization on the planet – all governments, private companies, academic institutions, and NGOs,” said Jack Dangermond, Esri founder and president, in a recent announcement.

Finding the balance between serving social issues that embrace employee activism while remaining true to core values and maintaining a productive workforce can be challenging.

Communicating core values helps guide decision-making when employers are under pressure to respond to events around them. These values should align with the company’s mission and reflect a commitment to inclusivity and social responsibility. An open and inclusive environment supports employees to speak out about concerns and share their opinions. It encourages dialogue and listening to employees’ perspectives on societal issues. By showing you care, you can cultivate a sense of psychological safety, where employees are comfortable sharing their experiences and concerns, for example, about political unrest or instances of unacceptable behavior like sexism.

Martin McEvoy, Managing Partner of Signium Ireland believes that: “True Corporate Activism begins in the home (i.e. within the organization). Leaders show by example, by clear communication, and by measurable standards the behaviors that are not just acceptable, but expected from those who are aligned to the organisation’s culture. Do, and be seen to do the right thing, by supporting and sponsoring colleagues to contribute meaningfully to positive societal or environmental initiatives.

Apart from organizational purpose, there is an imperative for all leaders to lead with fundamentally good values. Look at the human issue(s) first with genuine empathy and the organizational requirements second. You will find that as well as ‘being the right thing to do’, this is a much more powerful way to motivate all colleagues to contribute to the collective success of any enterprise or body.

Responsibly harnessed, the sense of belonging to a group and its balanced, ethical culture – that colleagues are deeply proud of – creates a level of cohesion that most organisations would crave.”

Employee well-being must remain a priority

In times of crisis, leaders must read what’s going on with their teams and offer support at both an organizational and personal level. Treating employees as individuals with unique needs is essential.

Here are several areas the C-Suite can focus on:

  1. Reiterate purpose and core values

The company values and purpose are central and crucial to understanding business decisions and corporate stance on social and political issues. Leaders should ensure they live the company values, communicate them with their teams, and have open discussions about what the company stands for.

Collaborating with non-profit organizations, social enterprises, or industry associations that align with your core values is a visible commitment to action. By actively participating in initiatives that address political unrest or crises, you contribute to positive change while supporting affected employees.

  1. Foster community engagement

Aim to empower teams with appropriate responses. For example, organize fundraising activities or volunteer events around social issues, orphanages, older people, or disability organizations. With these activities, people feel like they can make a real difference.

There is an opportunity to provide education and training programs on societal issues. Include workshops, seminars, or online courses that provide employees with the knowledge and tools to engage in constructive dialogue and talk about sensitive topics.

McEvoy adds: “Even better, empower your colleagues to identify what causes should really be supported and in what practical way, so they can take passionate ownership of initiatives that you can endorse with ‘time off’, funding or leveraging other organisational resources.”

  1. Promote internal resources

Some resources, such as counselling, may already be available within the organization. These are often available through Employee Assistance Programmes, and the confidential, professional nature of these services can be a valuable outlet to ease stress and get specialist support. “Indeed, a lot of organisations can redeploy resources other than just financial, to support colleagues, meaningful stakeholders or society at large”, says McEvoy.

4.     Offer flexibility

Most people have performance peaks and lulls. Encourage flexible work hours to maximize productivity while allowing employees breaks in working time.  They can use this time to phone a friend or family member, particularly when the person is in a different time zone.

  1. Avoid information overload

News channels are easy to access and the stream of negative news can be overwhelming, especially certain types like war. This can result in anxiety and confusion. It’s advisable to have forums that keep teams aware of issues, but they should not be inundated, especially where internal messaging is concerned. For some, work can be a refuge and a break away from compulsive media exposure.

In summary, balancing societal issues and employee activism while staying true to core business principles requires a proactive approach. “Go woke, go broke” could oversimplify how the response to social and political justice plays out in the workplace. Risks are involved which should be carefully weighed against any business ethics, where maximum bottom-line growth is not the only consideration.

To quote Ken Bowles (Global CFO of Smurfit Kappa – a client of Signium Ireland) in a recent leadership interview: Ken Bowles interview “You can work for an organization or be part of an organization….You should be able to look back and say I’ve done some good and that isn’t just the top or the bottom line….it extends to the team and community around you”.

www.signium.com

 

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