When Your Employees Want—and Need—You to Speak Up

The last week has seen both peaceful protests and riots following the death via police-knee-to-the-neck of George Floydin Minneapolis. The intense news coverage of the protests and unrest means that many of your employees have strong feelings about these events. Many companies have taken an approach of staying silent and not taking a position one way or the other regarding Floyd’s death and the country’s response to it. These companies seemingly feel that the safest approach is to say nothing. But is that really the safest thing to do? Many of your employees—and customers—may disagree.

I live in the East Village of New York City, where one of the most intense standoffs between police and protesters occurred just a few blocks from my apartment. There were many arrests made, including an arrest of the daughter of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The next day on my daily lunchbreak walk from my apartment through the SoHo neighborhood, I noticed evidence of the unrest of the night before, including broken shop windows. I took a photo and posted the photo to my Instagram account with the caption “The morning after…” I realized within hours of posting this photo, however, that I was missing the most important part of the story—not the damage done to storefronts, but the shocking death of a man by police. Some employers are making the same mistake—focusing solely on protecting their property and addressing security concerns rather than also opening a discussion with employees and customers about the tragedy that occurred. The primary motivation for not discussing the other side of the story—Floyd’s death—is the fear of alienating some customers, but when I thought about this further, I had to ask myself: fear of alienating them by saying what?

It occurred to me that the killing of Floyd and the subsequent protests and riots are not a political question as much as a question of morality for many of your employees and customers, especially those in the Millennial and Generation Z demographics. Your intention to stir the political pot as little as possible by remaining silent may be misinterpreted by both employees and customers as approval or complacence about what happened to Floyd. That would not be a safe place for any company to be. A common refrain on social media is that silence equals complicity with the forces that instigated the tragedy.

I was curious about how corporations were managing their response to Floyd’s death, and found this New York Times article on the topic. In contrast to past issues that have stirred up the country, many companies have decided to speak up, including even companies, such as Citigroup, from traditionally conservative industries.

What is the right approach—the safest approach—for your company to take? Remember, your customers aren’t the only ones waiting for a response—your employees are, too. In my conversations with others about our experiences being employees of corporations during this turbulent time, I heard it noted that the longer it takes for a company to speak up, the more personally hurtful it is to many employees, including especially African-American employees. At a time when so many companies are proud of their diversity and inclusivity initiatives, and brag about how many employees from minority backgrounds have been promoted to executive levels, is this a hurt that can be afforded? If your own employees don’t believe in your brand, how can they spread a positive message about that brand to customers?

The first question companies should ask themselves is who they are afraid of alienating with their response. The way to do that is to have the key decision-makers of the message agree on the most baseline response they could issue—one most people would be hard-pressed to disagree with. For example: “We stand behind the right of all Americans to peacefully protest and believe that all Americans, regardless of race, should be treated equally under the law and by police.”

Once that baseline statement has been agreed on, the next question becomes whether you would want your company catering, or playing, to, any customers or business partners who do not share those baseline beliefs. In the era of corporate social responsibility, consumers and employees—prospective and current—are looking at the kind of people you accept money from and target as your base. They also want to know the businesses you align yourself with. There could be a grave danger in catering to, and aligning yourself, with those who don’t accept the baseline morality and values your company’s decision-makers and employees agree on.

One note of caution: Be sure your baseline statement is meaningful, encompassing your executives’ and employees’ true feelings. Avoiding saying, “Black Lives Matter,” won’t win you points with employees and customers who feel strongly that those words are the heart of the matter. The point is to set a baseline standard for your company’s stand on Floyd’s death and the country’s response. If there is a subset of customers or business associates who are alienated by that baseline standard, then it may do more harm than good to continue worrying about pleasing them.

Another question facing corporations is how to handle employees who want to speak out on their own to their industry contacts. I have heard of at least one company that is considering not allowing that, and having all messaging come from just one executive. Do you think that is the right approach? I think it could backfire, leaving employees feeling frustrated and muzzled.

It’s one of those pivotal moments for companies, whether small or huge, in which it is important to think about legacy and being on the right side of history. Both your employees and customers—current and prospective—are watching.

How is your company managing messaging to both employees and the public during this time? Do you think there is a greater danger in remaining silent or speaking up and clarifying your stand on the issues many of your employees and customers feel so passionately about?



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