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Guardrails in a Time of Conflict



 

Back in December 2019, at the Kronos Workforce Institute Advisory Board meeting, it was noted that political discussions were getting increasingly heated. The Board suggested that organizations would have to introduce ‘guardrails’ to keep any social/political discussions in the workplace within acceptable bounds.

That prediction proved to be prophetic, at least in the US where, by mid-summer 2020, political unrest had reached a high level. The question for organizations is what to do when social/political tensions show up inside the organization.

Not only do organizations need to be ready to deal with tensions now, they will likely have to deal with similar issues in the future. Political polarization has been increasing for some time and it looks like this will continue, driven in part by social media.

Organizations may count themselves lucky that the early stage of the unrest occurred at a time when many workplaces were shutdown. The leadership team would do well to form a committee of scope out policies, guardrails, to handle—or ideally prevent—political battles within the workplace.

Situations to prepare for


There are four situations you need to prepare for:

  • Conflict between employees due to different political views

  • Demands from people outside the organization to fire an employee

  • Pressure from inside of the organization for the CEO to take a political stance

  • Pressure from outside of the organization for the CEO to take a political stance


How to prepare for these situations


The overarching goal of a “guardrails” strategy is to keep the business on track doing business and not get drawn into a no-win political contest. It’s a matter of being clear on values and be skilled at accurately assessing the real risk of action or inaction. Here are some points to consider

Conflict between employees due to different political views

The simplest rule is to say that no divisive political activities should occur at work. “Divisive” is anything that generates a complaint, or the manager believes it will likely generate a complaint. In today’s climate almost every political viewpoint from “save the whales” to “save Hong Kong” is probably divisive. Some organizations have a “no soliciting rule” which can be applied to soliciting support for your political views via conversations, signs, or symbols. If you can find a less restrictive guardrail that might be better, but I don’t have a practical one to offer.

Demands from people outside the organization to fire an employee

Organizations are increasingly being pressured to fire certain individuals because they have posted something on social media that someone found objectionable. You need policies on how you will respond to this. Here are some points to consider. Storms on social media often represent extreme opinions by a minority, not a strong movement. If an employee truly is damaging the reputation of the organization then you may want to take action. There is some moral duty to protect a member of your team from attack and to protect free speech. The employee may need emotional support or even actual security if they’ve received death threats.

Pressure from inside of the organization for the CEO to take a political stance

If the Board and CEO wish to take a political stance on some matter then they should. They do need to be sure they are not overly encouraging employees to pressure them into taking political stances or demands on the CEO say something on different issues may get out of hand. I’d recommend guardrails on the mechanisms that employees can use to make suggestions, for example sending ideas to Corporate Social Responsibility is allowed. Internal lobbying to get the CEO to take a stance could be a violation of the code of conduct. Also, in all cases, the CEO needs to work with PR to carefully research the issue since political issues are subtle and controversial.

Pressure from outside of the organization for the CEO to take a political stance

He main thing is to avoid knee jerk reactions. Have a process whereby PR carefully researches the issue and makes recommendations on how to handle the situation. This could be part of crisis planning.

Summing up


On political matters, a CEO might think “Well, let’s just do the right thing.” That’s a naïve and dangerous view in situations where there is violent disagreement on what the right thing is. Organizations need to get ahead of the issue by creating or revising policies that put in place guardrails to contain conflict before it damages the business.


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