Walking A Tightrope: Workforce Responses to Employer Political Activism

Walking A Tightrope: Workforce Responses to Employer Political Activism

Employees are worried about the consequences of their companies’ activism, and strongly believe in greater transparency

Jack Kalavritinos

In the past several years, American companies seem to have increasingly supported political causes in high-profile ways. These efforts are distinct from typical efforts to lobby lawmakers on issues relevant to their core business interests. Instead, these issues are decidedly more controversial and often related to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and/or environment, social, governance (ESG) efforts. Similarly, they have occurred irrespective of the causes supported: Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines bowing to activists and denouncing the Georgia voting laws and Major League Baseball relocating its All-Star Game from Atlanta, Black Rifle Coffee Company has aligned itself with Second Amendment rights, and cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase has urged political neutrality in its workplace, which is itself an action of political significance.

Despite many companies wading into issues of political salience, too little research has been conducted on whether workers at politically active companies support management’s decisions in such activities and if so, which issues seem more controversial than others among the employee base.

Recently, public affairs firm JK Strategies, in partnership with TechnoMetrica,  undertook the first step in constructing a data-based portrait of how employees regard their employers engaging in such broad political activities. TIPP Poll surveyed 645 full-time or part-time employed American adults regarding their views of employers becoming involved in non-business, political/socio-economic issues that may often be contentious. A third worked in organizations employing less than a hundred people; 18% worked in firms that employed 101 – 500; and 43% in companies with more than 500 employees.

Key Insights

  • Employees want to be heard: 81% of the workforce believes their views are very or somewhat important to take into account the views of employees and other stakeholders before a company takes a public stance.
TIPP JK Strategies Poll Results American Employees want to be heard
  • Half of employees are not consistently consulted in advance: Almost half said they were “rarely” or “very rarely” or” occasionally” consulted before their company took a stand on a business issue.
  • Employees at politically inactive companies want it to stay that way: 54% are happy to have their employers not embroiled in political/socio-economic non-business issues.
TIPP/JK Strategies Poll Result On American Employers activist stances Chart 2
  • While employees support their employers taking a stand on certain issues, a third of employees don’t support or are not sure and are extremely concerned about the consequences of such moves. 65% favor their employees taking a stand on some social issues but 62% of employees believe there may be negative consequences for getting involved in contentious issues at a company level, with 34% being very concerned.
TIPP Poll/JK Strategies Results: Americans concerns that their company may join a contentious issueChart 3
  • Furthermore, 40% of employees feel their companies frequently took a stand on controversial issues. 22% said it happened “very frequently.”
  • Employees at small, medium, and large firms fared almost the same when it came to support for involvement in controversial topics.
TIPP/JK Strategies Results Americans supporting companies taking stands on non buisiness issues

Implications For Employers

Consult the team: The survey found that only 53% of employees had ever been consulted before employers got involved in non-business political issues. With nearly 50% of the workforce saying they want to be consulted on such decisions, employers would do well to gauge whether their employees find it appropriate to wade into political issues. Such action would likely signal thoughtfulness and transparency. It would also build trust between workers and management.

“At a minimum, employees want management to hear their voice before they take stands on controversial issues,” said JK Strategies Founder and Principal Jack Kalavritinos. “Employers need to take seriously the concerns of their workforce regarding political engagement, even if they seem supportive of the leadership’s decision on a surface level. Employers risk breaking bonds of trust with their workforce if they engage in hot button issues without addressing employee apprehensions.”

Show empathy: Many respondents harbor concerns that political activism might damage the firm's reputation and therefore could even jeopardize their jobs. Management should seek out opportunities for empathetic dialogue with workers to help identify whether involvement on political issues will alienate their workforce or deepen employee anxiety. Companies do their employees a disservice if they frame specific, controversial, politically-focused actions advocated for by political activists as part of support for an overall business goal.

Get ahead of the narrative: In an age when social media platforms give ordinary stakeholders the ability to amplify their socio-political views, leading potentially to “viral” pressure campaigns, company decisions about political activity are more consequential than ever. By understanding and addressing employee sentiment, companies can potentially identify which decisions might result in negative publicity generated by social media campaigns.

Employee feedback is only the start: As part of an inclusive, 360-degree approach to performing due diligence, asking for employee feedback is only the start. Additionally, a diverse cross-section of shareholders, customers, and suppliers’ concerns and views should be taken into account. Schools and universities, for instance, should care deeply about what students, parents, alumni, faculty and board members think about policies that move the school in one direction – with the potential to make members of the school’s community feel marginalized. Companies with franchisees should care about what their partners – the franchise owners – think about decisions that may pull back the company from its mission and alienate or divide its customer base. Only after feedback after a decision and gathering data on whether a company’s core competencies will be helped or harmed can management make a reasoned decision.

More Data On The Way

In the coming weeks, TIPP Poll/JKS will be conducting additional surveys focusing on other corporate stakeholders in order to help clarify outstanding levels of support or concern and whether businesses are appropriately conducting political engagement nationwide.

TechnoMetrica Methodology

TechnoMetrica conducted the TIPP Poll, an online survey for J.K. Strategies, from July 28 to July 30.  The nationwide study had a sample of 645 Americans who worked either full-time or part-time.  TechnoMetrica's network of panel partners provided the study sample.  Upon study completion, TechnoMetrica weighted the study dataset by gender, age, race, education, and geographical region to mirror known benchmarks such as the U.S. Census. The credibility interval (CI) for the survey is +/- 4.0 percentage points, meaning the study is accurate to within ± 4.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Americans been surveyed. Subgroups have higher credibility intervals due to smaller sample sizes.

About The Author

Jack Kalavritinos is the Founder, Principal of JK Strategies, a public affairs firm dedicated to working with clients seeking to navigate various communications and public policy challenges. He is a public affairs and health communications expert and has spent over 20 years working in senior corporate and association leadership and at the highest levels of government: the White House, HHS, DOL, and the FDA. He is a senior advisor at APCO Worldwide and serves on the APCO Intl Advisory Council.  He can be reached at: jack@jkstrat.com

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