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How to Take a Public Stance on Social Issues

Originally published by SHRM.

By Matt Gonales

Over the past two years, a series of tragedies has brought social justice issues and politics to the forefront of the national conversation.

The murder of George Floyd made headlines worldwide. Then there was a rise in violence against Asian American people fueled by baseless conspiracy theories. In the last year, mass shootings have occurred against people of color at a grocery store and an elementary school.

"Whether it is war, child labor, mass shootings, police brutality or another issue, there are plenty of social issues that are happening on a daily basis that employees and consumers care about which companies could take a public stance on," said Hooria Jazaieri, assistant professor of management at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business.

While some organizations have released statements addressing social issues, many remain hesitant to do so. A recent report by research group The Conference Board in New York City showed that most companies have not taken a public stance on such topics.

Organizations have remained mostly silent about women's reproductive rights: Just 10 percent of companies have made, or plan to make, a public statement about abortion access in light of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the report found.

Pros and Cons of Taking a Public Stance

Brian McComak is the founder and CEO of Hummingbird Humanity, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm in New York City. He encourages business leaders to consider taking a public stance on issues organizations feel strongly about.

"While I would suggest it's always been important, leadership today requires humanity, empathy and vulnerability," he said.

Some advantages of taking such a stance include:

Employees expect it. Nearly 60 percent of employees believe that CEOs should speak publicly on controversial political and social issues they care about, according to consulting firm Edelman.

Consumers do, too. Previous Edelman research has shown that 53 percent of consumers believe that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.

It could help in recruiting efforts. Organizations can increase their talent pools to include values-driven prospective employees, such as Generation Z workers and people of color, and gain customers to boot.

Silence could backfire. As Jazaieri explained, companies who do not take a public stance on social issues could risk assumptions being made about the reasons behind the company's silence.

A 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that about 40 percent of HR professionals agree that taking clear public stances on social, political and environmental issues can support recruitment and retention efforts. Employees of color were more likely to say that they expect their company to take a public stance on these issues.

"When people believe they have shared values with the organization they work for or are consumers of it, it deepens the connection," said Ella Washington, professor of practice for the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

However, taking a public stance can lead to:

Anger among some employees and stakeholders. Addressing public issues may also cause those who disagree or want to remain silent on the issue to have an unfavorable view of the organization.

Assumptions made about your organization. Your company could quickly be labeled too "liberal" or "conservative" based on your response. It is also difficult to communicate the nuance of your message once the company picks one side of an issue.

The "what about me?" phenomena. People who represent or support other social issues may expect that their organization will speak on issues they care about, as well. This can present the unsustainable challenge of trying to respond to every social issue.

"[Taking a public stance] can be complex and it may or may not be feasible for certain companies to do this on a regular basis," Jazaieri added.

Best Practices When Taking a Public Stance

Some best practices for companies to consider when making a statement on social or political issues include:

  • Understand why you're taking a stance. Gaining clarity around your company's intentions for taking a public stance is the first important step. Relatedly, what does your business hope will happen because of this public stance?

  • Align the statement with your company's values. There may be an angle regarding the public stance that is very "on brand" (i.e., consistent with the company's mission and values) that could be a logical entry point for the company taking a public stance, Jazaieri said.

  • Consider your stakeholders. Keep a pulse on what internal and external stakeholders want or believe regarding social issues. When taking a public position, the business should use language that is consistent with the company's values and mission without alienating important stakeholders.

  • Know that actions speak loudly. Make sure that public stances on social issues are enacted values, not just words that live on a website or on a flyer handed out at new employee orientation. Your company should be able to point to examples of how it supports the position it says it upholds.

Washington explained that organizations must realize that a public statement is not just to pay lip service. Once you take a stand publicly, you are also inviting accountability.

"If organizations fail to see their public stance as a commitment, they stand to be discredited in the long run for the value of their messages," she said.

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