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When Should Your Business Act On Social Justice Issues?

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Abortion access. LGBTQ rights. Voting laws. Black Lives Matter.

As divisive social issues in the United States continue to dominate headlines and employee headspace, companies are presented with a dilemma: “Should I take a stance, or should I stay silent?”

If you’re an HR manager or another company leader tasked with figuring out the answer, it’s a true double-edged sword. On the one hand, if your company takes action on the right causes in the right ways, it can improve employee engagement, strengthen the employer brand in the eyes of talented job seekers, and even attract increasingly socially-conscious customers.

On the other hand, taking an unpopular stance—or even a popular stance in the wrong way—can cause distraction, stir up conflict, or be tone-deaf enough to convince employees to go work elsewhere. Doing nothing, which can be misunderstood as an implied acceptance of injustice, can be damaging too (just ask Coca-Cola).

For insights on what companies should do in this tricky situation, Software Advice’s Social Justice Response Survey* asked close to 500 U.S. employees for their thoughts on how their employer has responded to social justice issues so far, and what they wish their employer would do in the future.

What we learned is that employees can be equally divided on what companies should do, but there are indicators that can push companies in the right direction on when and how to act.

Infographic highlighting the key takeaways from Software Advice's Social Justice Response Survey.

Employers are split on how to address social justice issues

When we asked employees in our survey how their employer has responded to social justice issues so far, a clear divide in tactics emerged. 38% of employees say their employer has been totally silent on social justice issues, 39% say their employer has taken a public stance on at least one issue without follow-up action, and 24% say their employer has taken a public stance on at least one issue and followed it up with an action to support their stance (e.g., donating money).

Pie chart showing how companies have addressed social justice issues.

Digging deeper, we notice a few trends. Likely because they face less scrutiny (internally and externally), we find that smaller companies tend to remain silent on social justice issues more often than larger companies: 43% of workers from businesses with five to 100 employees said their employer has been totally silent versus 27% of workers from businesses with more than 1,000 employees.

We also find that out of all the industries represented by at least 30 responses in our survey, construction firms take the silent approach most often (47%), while retailers and restaurants are most likely to take a stance and perform follow-up action (28%). Restaurants in particular have been eager to tap into social justice issues, which has produced both newsworthy success stories and notorious misfires.

Aside from a few tendencies though, our data highlights the divergent paths that companies have taken on addressing social justice issues up to this point, adding to the confusion on what the best strategy is. A Gartner survey exemplifies this conflict perfectly: 51% of CEOs from North American companies believe that taking a public stance on social justice issues is good for business, while 49% believe it’s potentially damaging, or have no opinion (full research available to Gartner clients).

Next steps

Social justice issues are nuanced and complex, and your company’s role within them can be influential or inconsequential. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that every business should take when addressing these types of issues. HR leaders should work together with executive leadership and PR on each issue separately as situations develop internally or in the community to come up with an appropriate response.

Many workers want their employer to take a stance (even if it’s one they don’t agree with)

When deciding on how to tackle social justice issues, your employees may be able to provide clarity. If an overwhelming number of workers are passionate that your company should take a certain stance or perform a certain action, the potential backlash from not doing so could be substantial.

But our data indicates that your workforce likely isn’t of one mind on social justice issues. We asked the employees in our survey if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “I want my employer to take a public stance on social justice issues, even if it doesn’t agree with my personal beliefs.”

57% agreed with the statement—a majority, but not an overwhelming one.

Graph showing the level of employee agreement with the fact that employers should take a stance on social justice issues even if that stance disagrees with their own personal beliefs.

Here again, a few trends emerge when we look at different demographics:

  • Black employees are particularly keen on their employer taking a public stance, as 74% agreed with the statement above.
  • Workers with college degrees are more likely to want their employer to take a public stance on social justice issues than those without one (59% versus 48%).
  • There’s an inverse correlation with age: 63% of workers aged 18 to 25 agreed that employers should take a public stance on social justice issues, compared to only 45% of those aged 46 to 55.
  • Women are slightly more likely to say that their employer should take a stance on social justice issues than men (60% versus 56%).

However, there is no situation where we end up with more than three-quarters of employees agreeing or disagreeing that their employer should take a public stance on social justice issues.

To further highlight this lack of consensus, we asked the employees in our survey two questions: 1) Is taking a public stance on social justice issues good or bad for business?, and 2) Do you believe your co-workers have similar or differing opinions on social justice issues and the actions their employer should take?

Less than a third of respondents (30%) fell into the sweet spot for employers eager to act—believing both that taking a stance is good for business, and that their co-workers have similar opinions on social justice issues and the actions their employer should take.

Employee views on social justice issues

Co-workers have similar opinions on social justice issues Co-workers have differing opinions on social justice issues Not sure or have no opinion
Taking a stance on social justice issues is good for business 30% 12% 2%
Taking a stance on social justice issues risks hurting the business 15% 17% 5%
Not sure or have no opinion 6% 7% 6%

Source: Software Advice Social Justice Response Survey

Q1: Overall, do you think your employer taking a public stance on social justice issues helps or hurts the business?

Q2: Which of the following best describes you and your co-workers’ current opinions on social justice issues in the United States?

n: 487

If it wasn’t obvious before, these results highlight that any social justice response strategy you go with is unlikely to make every employee in your organization happy. Company leaders should work together to gauge the employee response to any given strategy, and go with the one that will produce the most benefits or the least amount of backlash.

Next steps

Though our results indicate worker opinions on social justice issues often differ greatly at a macro level, that doesn’t mean your business can’t be uniquely unified. Where you’re located, what industry you’re in, and who’s compelled to apply for a job at your organization can all influence workforce opinions on social justice issues.

This is where something such as an employee pulse survey tool can be invaluable. Using these tools, you can poll your workers and get a “pulse” on how they feel about divisive issues. You may learn that a lot of workers are eager for you to take action, or that they don’t care one way or the other. You can also learn how much damage a certain response has the potential to cause.

The opinions of other stakeholders, such as customers, should be taken into consideration too. But with pulse survey tools, there’s no excuse for not knowing where your workforce stands.

3 tips for addressing social justice issues

It is impossible and impractical for your company to speak up on every social issue. At the same time, the days of companies completely staying out of divisive societal issues are over. Saying nothing at the wrong time can do lasting damage to your employer brand.

So when should you take a stance? And how should you go about it? Here are our three tips for how to address social justice issues and do right by your employees.

1. Give up on being an apolitical…

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