Should Employers Take Positions on Social and Political Issues?

Two experts debate the issue.

May 26, 2023
People prefer companies that have a positive impact on society.

Rochelle M. Thompson, SHRM-CP

In 2020, employees watched their work environments shift at a lightning-fast pace. As we grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping political and social issues outside the workplace became challenging, primarily because the workplace moved into our homes. 

With a wide range of distrust and misinformation circulating, voices of company leaders operated as beacons of light during times of darkness and ambiguity.

Learning how to navigate hot-button issues surrounding the pandemic was just the beginning. Over the next 18 months, more than 11,000 protests against racial injustice broke out across the U.S. alone. The protesters called for the nation—with a focus on employers—to start addressing urgent sociopolitical issues regarding racism and bias. 

In a 2019 Gartner study of more than 30,000 people worldwide, 87 percent of employees said businesses should take positions on social issues that are relevant to their business. 

Additionally, a 2021 survey of members of the Society for Corporate Governance found that 45 percent of the 125 CEOs who responded felt compelled to speak out on social, political and environmental issues, and 14 percent said other officers or directors made such statements. 

Employers that choose not to get involved are more likely to see adverse effects on their workplace culture and bottom line. And when it gets to that point, it’s difficult to make up for the lost time. They’ve lost trust and credibility. When business leaders speak up for women’s rights or against violence targeting minority groups, on the other hand, they create a firm foundation for their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies to stand on. 

Some might argue that speaking out can invite legal challenges or create division instead of bringing people together. So how can employers effectively communicate stances on hot-button social and political issues to minimize this effect? 

First, they must ask themselves this question: Who is asking for our allyship or support? By taking a reflective approach rather than responding reactively, they allow themselves space to step back from the heat of the issue, seek feedback from their teams, and communicate authentically and responsibly. This approach makes decisions to speak out easier to facilitate.

Moreover, speaking to monumental sociopolitical and environmental issues becomes more about doing what is necessary than playing it safe. Simply put, employers that maintain a myopic position represent nothing more than a building, a product or a service. 

However, employers that embrace a panoramic perspective on matters of importance can increase their influence in the marketplace by demonstrating to their employees and communities that they have a commitment to inclusion and innovation. 

For those that take courageous stands, the return on investment is that they generate higher levels of employee engagement and allow people to make a conscious choice to align with an organization that shares their interests or values. In a 2021 survey by software company Atlassian, 61 percent of Millennial respondents said they prefer companies that take a stand on social issues. 

Taking a stand can potentially help companies lower attrition and be intentional about attracting and retaining employees who add an element of diversity to the culture. 

There is no better return on investment than the intrinsic value of having transparent and empathetic dialogues with internal and external stakeholders about topics that matter the most to them. Doing so can drive trust and mobilize positive social impacts.

Rochelle M. Thompson, SHRM-CP, has a doctorate in psychology and is the founder and CEO of The Black Voice Project Institute in Washington, D.C.


Taking a stance can alienate employees and clients.

Lisa McDonald

By taking a hard stance on hot-button issues, companies expose themselves to potential HR liability and open themselves up for a public relations crisis.

In my experience, which includes decades of HR work in some highly regulated industries, primarily finance and health care, it’s neither advisable nor beneficial for employers to take a position on controversial issues. 

Taking a public stance inevitably alienates clients and employees who feel differently from the company about the issue. This is a risk that most companies cannot afford to take, especially in today’s extremely polarized and competitive climate. Furthermore, devoting resources and efforts to communicating and defending your position can cost a great deal of time and money, which could otherwise be devoted to achieving critically important company goals, such as revenue growth and effective talent acquisition.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology reveals that taking a hard-line stance on political or social issues negatively affects a company’s recruitment efforts. Researchers found that employers that affiliate with a particular political party or that take stances on political issues will turn off some applicants who feel differently from the company. In fact, the study indicated that a company’s political position could deter up to 40 percent of active job seekers from applying.

Taking positions on social or political issues can also have a negative effect on a company’s existing workforce. Some employees could feel that their employer’s stance on controversial social or political issues creates a hostile work environment, for example. 

If employees find themselves on the opposite side of a hot-button issue that their employer has taken a position on, they could argue that they’re being marginalized or discriminated against. Consider the unfortunate timing of documenting or disciplining an employee for performance-­related issues when you’ve just publicly spoken out against a cause that the employee strongly supports, or vice versa. The perception of the timing of the disciplinary action could feel discriminatory to the employee and cause the worker to question the company’s true motives. 

Even if the disciplinary action is warranted, “perception is reality,” as the saying goes. At best, the candidate will keep their bad feelings to themselves and look for another job where they feel more comfortable. At worst, they could file a complaint or lawsuit against the employer.

An exception to this guidance would be if an issue is essentially “baked in” to a company’s mission or to its products and services. For example, a religious organization may take a stance that is pro-life, while Planned Parenthood would obviously be pro-choice. Additionally, Patagonia is an example of a corporation that is built upon certain environmental standards and issues. Therefore, it makes sense that it would take the environmentally-friendly side of any issue. 

Anyone who is an employee or consumer of any of these businesses already knows the organization’s stance on these issues, so being vocal about the company’s position wouldn’t cause any conflict or friction, nor would it serve as a deterrent to existing patrons or employees.

In sum, unless it’s an integral part of your business model, taking positions on hot-button issues can do more harm than good. It’s more productive and less risky for companies to stick to the business objectives at hand and to devote valuable resources (time, money, labor) to serving their clients, growing their business, and fostering a collaborative and supportive workplace for employees.

Lisa McDonald is the founder and CEO of Integrated Connections, a national health care recruiting and ­consulting firm based in Fort Collins, Colo.



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