Jay Friedman is a partner and the president of Goodway group.
Social issues are central to public and professional discourse. Employees care more now that their company has conversations about current events, placing a significantly higher value on working for organizations that care about and address social issues with care.
According to the Special Report Edelman Trust Barometer 202170% of employees want to work for a company that reflects their values and has a CEO who addresses the issues they care about. However, as discussions about companies’ perspectives on prominent and sensitive social issues have reached a fever pitch, leaders now face the seemingly impossible task of unifying a workforce and customer base.
So, how should leaders tackle sensitive societal issues? Here are two key strategies they can use to determine when and how to speak.
Lead with empathy
Many executives believe that the only way to be an empathetic leader is to make sure their voice is loudest. However, the job of a true leader is to recognize the voice of every employee and customer and then unite both groups around common causes and goals.
That doesn’t mean executives have to sit through the conversation completely. Instead, they should follow a tailored strategy to tackle a topic. At Goodway Group we follow this framework:
• Determine the importance of the topic for the team. Before tackling a social problem, consider whether it is worth talking to employees. Is the topic something that concerns a significant number of employees? If so, you’ll want to tackle it.
• Prioritize diversity, inclusion and belonging. Taking on a position that supports as diverse a workforce as possible and recognizes everyone’s different value systems is the best approach to sensitive issues. As leaders, it is important to support diversity in mind rather than take sides. By adopting a mindset that fosters a sense of belonging among employees, leaders can ensure they approach social topics consistently.
• Involve employees in decision-making. Giving team members a say in how companies approach sensitive topics is vital. At Goodway Group, we established the Goodway Group Council, a roundtable of frontline employee representatives who address issues that affect our people. When something tacky or unclear comes up, we use this group to get instant feedback from employees and learn more about their perspectives. By giving employees the space to share what’s important, companies know how to best support them.
Provide real support to your employees
Successfully addressing controversial issues with authenticity and care requires action. Without a clear plan, employees may feel that companies are just virtue signaling, or taking a stand just to appear trendy. So it’s important that companies clearly communicate what they stand for and how they approach activism.
Take the pandemic, for example. During this time, topics surrounding mental health and childcare quickly became a global priority. There was a deluge of public comments from leaders about how companies would change their business models to minimize burnout and provide flexibility. However, it was vital that these statements were more than words. Employees expected leaders to deliver on these commitments for adequate support.
When large-scale social issues impact workforces, leaders need to think about initiatives and programs that address them effectively. This may include providing unlimited free time, access to informal care and other forms of support. Prioritizing real, meaningful action is more important to employee satisfaction than a huge, but ultimately empty, public statement.
Approaching sensitive social issues with compassion is impossible without taking tangible steps to resolve or minimize their effects. Leaders must assess on a case-by-case basis how to respond and then act. A neutral, standard approach weakens leaders’ credibility and can often detract from the problem. In addition, if the confirmation does not appear authentic, there is a risk that it will negatively affect employee morale and consumer confidence. Leaders who truly care about these issues need to be strategic and thoughtful in their approach, with one goal in mind: to make a meaningful impact.