5 Steps to Protect Brands From Employees’ Controversial Politics

September 12, 2017

By: Pia Singh

U.S. business leaders are facing “new kinds of pressure from within—from employees who expect their company to stake out positions on numerous controversial social or economic causes, and from board members concerned with reputational issues,” a NY Times article says.

Today many Americans are motivated to engage in political advocacy or other activism. Some employees hold more extreme views and may take part in activities that advocate violence, racism or other fundamentally unacceptable ideas. Such individuals may be identified in connection with a public protest, or their workplace comments may snowball in the media. These situations quickly can create disruption among coworkers, and also become a brand-building or brand-degrading moment for the employer.

While some brands choose to stay above the political fray, standing by idly is not an option when an employee is involved in intentionally provocative communications at work or engages in off-duty acts that contradict company values.

As we have seen, reaction from coworkers, consumers, investors and the courts can be swift and harsh. Not making the company’s position clear enough, fast enough, in response to a situation or criticism, can be a mistake.

The need for accelerated decisions and responses on sensitive topics has put new pressure on management teams. As one former CEO stated, “Even if you want to keep [work and politics] separate, your customers, your employees and the public may not.”

As such, here are five steps communicators and business leaders can take to ensure internal preparedness amidst an unpredictable external environment:

1. Know the rules. State and local laws governing employment vary widely. Keep in mind that laws might not always completely align with company policies. Conduct a thorough review of all policies governing employee conduct now, before an issue arises.

2. Know your stakeholders. Conducting a stakeholder analysis will help you understand all the parties that need to be involved, the best ways to reach them and the potential challenges of working with each.

3. Know the issue(s). Nothing is black and white. Most large corporations have diverse constituencies that draw from both sides of the political spectrum. As a result, leaders fear that taking a stand on an issue might alienate millions of customers. Carefully weigh with your leadership team the pros and cons of specific responses and determine the best course of action. For instance, it may seem inevitable that terminating an employee will end in a lawsuit. But is the cost of litigation more favorable than the potential cost of the damage to your values or brand?

4. Know your team of advisors. You’re not alone. Your HR, legal, labor and reputation management teams are there to help, and should have a seat at the table from the start. Host a joint session with key stakeholders and think through the scenarios you may face. Then, work side by side to develop responses and draw up formal policies.

5. Know your company. Ask yourself questions to help determine when and how to speak with employees in response to news events. Does your brand have a history of making political statements like Amazon, Apple and Google? Or do you take a more moderate tone, like Morgan Stanley? Does an employee’s off-duty activities run counter to your company’s core beliefs? Can you afford to stay silent on this issue?

Once you’ve considered the variables and conducted a thorough internal assessment, develop a plan. This will put your company in a position to limit negative public attention and minimize business impact and reputation damage.

CONTACT: chelsey.watts@fleishman.com

Pia Singh is Vice President in the Reputation Management practice of FleishmanHillard, New York. You can contact Pia here.

This article was originally published on PRNews.