Among the myriad of challenges that internal communicators currently face, the inability to talk with employees about divisive political and social issues is one of the toughest. As the past two years have brought heated, politicized responses to the global pandemic, polarizing conversations around racial inequity and more, these discussions are also happening at work — whether communicators want them to or not.
In a new report from Business for America and Civic Health Project, 69% of companies surveyed said that America’s growing social and political divides are manifesting at work to create negative effects on their employees and company culture.
“The well-documented increase in toxic polarization among Americans is not only a threat to our social fabric and system of government; it is also a business and economic issue,” write survey authors Sarah Bonk & Luke Raskopf. “Companies are witnessing first-hand how contentious issues create workplace conflict and reduce productivity. The debates we encounter on Twitter, sensationalist news outlets, and Capitol Hill have worked their way into corporate offices, Zoom meetings, and Slack chats. The possibility of doing business without confronting controversy is disappearing, as an increasingly divided public voices conflicting views on a host of charged topics and hot-button current events.”
Among those companies surveyed, “[r]oughly one-third reported some kind of issue — more conflicts or complaints, self-censorship, and reduced productivity or satisfaction — among employees. Close to half of companies reported leadership has struggled to manage conflict, respond to issues without causing further division, and generally act effectively within today’s cultural/political minefield.”
The report says that these issues are compounded by executive leaders are unprepared to message around challenging topics and managers who are not equipped to explain their company’s stance on a controversial issue or facilitate constructive dialogue with members of their team in conflict.
Other internal barriers include a lack of employee training around how to communicate across different perspectives and anonymous internal communication channels like surveys that, though intended to give employees a space for thoughtful feedback without fear of retribution, can wind up succumbing to trolls
Though the report was focused on understanding the challenges that companies face, its authors also interviewed several company leaders from the 31% of respondents who said that social and political divides are not a source of conflict at their companies.
Here are some of their recommendations for communicators hoping to bridge social and political divides among their workforce.
Invest in inclusion as a corporate value
While many organizations have dedicated diversity, equity and inclusion programs, the report says that “clearly defining and genuinely embodying inclusion as a value is reliably correlated with success in navigating divides.”
Inclusion can take many names when defined as a value, including a commitment to openness or fostering a welcoming workplace.
“Several interviewees described their efforts to ensure employees have a clear understanding of company values, which are often communicated to potential hires as well,” the report reads. “A CEO of a mid-sized consumer products company strives to ensure all employees are well-versed in a unifying framework of organizational values and standards, and that it is applied consistently and evenly to all employees, regardless of viewpoint, location, or role.”
The companies that saw the most success with making inclusion a corporate value all started the work at the top, securing a commitment to inclusive behavior from executive leaders and using leadership development programming to help model that behavior through all levels of management. This included leaders delivering messages that supported inclusion, providing examples of how they take steps to promote an inclusive culture at work and ensure their accountability through performance reviews.
“A Global 1000 bioscience company president sets the tone for employees through a weekly email to all staff that provides business updates and discusses social/ political issues, providing him with an opportunity to model inclusivity,” the report reads. “Less ambitious measures, such as simply engaging with colleagues in constructive dialogue to model what is possible, also yield positive results in creating a healthy company culture.”
Prep leaders to have difficult conversations at a regular cadence
Leaders at the companies that reported comfort navigating tense political and social conversations communicated with employees directly and frequently, which the report says, “helps provide a solid foundation for averting unhealthy conflicts and maintaining trust and credibility.” These tools included regular engagement surveys, town halls that consistently left time for leaders to receive and answer employee objections or feedback.
“The key, according to the executive involved, was preventing anonymous engagement, which too often produces the divisive communication style common to social media platforms that derails healthy discussion. Whether by engaging with employees in-person and out in the field, or virtually through email and chat tools, leaders who reported success in bridging divides at their companies regularly heard from people personally.”
Leaders who receive specific training around having difficult conversations also reported more positive results. Two executives specifically cited the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ popular Interpersonal Dynamics course, which is known informally as the “touchy-feely” class, which gave them training and practice to have difficult conversations around employee performance, pay and other work disagreements that practice the same diplomacy required to navigate political and social discussions.
Train employees to navigate tense interactions
Though most company DE&I training programs didn’t include guidance on communicating with employees who hold diverse viewpoints, the study found that several Fortune 500 companies train employees on how to deal with tense interactions and conversations around race. Two companies said that The Courageous Conversation program helped employees discuss and understand ongoing racial disparities at work.
“Additionally, one large consumer products company provides all retail store and phone customer service staff with de-escalation training to respond to angry customers,” the report reads. “These types of programming can provide general interpersonal skills across the workforce that yield measurable personal, professional, and bottom-line value.”
Check out the rest of the “Businesses Bridging Divides” report here.