|Jackson Hayes and Ryan Toohey co-authored this article.
In 2023, employees showed they could have influence. Consider the whirlwind Thanksgiving week at OpenAI, where Sam Altman was fired as CEO only to have employees threaten to resign en masse. Instead of Altman leaving, employees influenced investors to sack the entire board of directors instead. Setting aside OpenAI’s unique organization, when was the last time employees replaced an entire board?
One of the lessons for communicators and executives is employees can be an asset—or a risk if you don’t take heed. But if you understand your people and communicate effectively, you can move companies and industries.
The employee power trend
The OpenAI experience is part of a larger pattern of labor’s power—real or perceived—that will need to be managed in 2024 as the U.S. presidential and other elections grip the world.
Auto strikes have long been a classic example of labor power. In 2023, the UAW orchestrated strikes at the Big 3. However, this time President Biden and former President Trump both showed support for workers, sensing a political advantage, showing yet again it’s not safe to champion traditionally liberal causes in a blue state or conservative ones in red states. Those distinctions aren’t relevant today with multigenerational employee bases, polarization and changing expectations of one’s relationship with work.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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It’s not just politics though. In 2023, “employee rights” issues reached investors as groups representing union interests pushed proxy proposals asking investors to tell many non-unionized companies to adopt “neutrality” policies restricting companies’ ability to communicate with their people about certain issues, including labor organizing efforts. These proposals were poorly understood by advisory agencies, with Glass Lewis and ISS recommending in favor of many on the grounds of there being reputational risk to discussing unions.
Enter cause fatigue and backlash
The pandemic produced all sorts of employee activism and brought to light questions regarding the role business should have in shaping societal norms. This led to companies feeling pressured to take on a host of “political” positions, sometimes in haste and without understanding the implications.
Say you’re a global brand with a heavy digital, print and TV advertising footprint. It makes sense that you should have a communications style guide that reflects the best thinking on DE&I norms. But do you need to send that style guide to employees who have nothing to do with communications? Maybe, maybe not.
Some employees have responded to corporate stances by suggesting employers are telling them how to think. (e.g., “We’re a plastics business. I get that we should talk about reducing pollution, but why do I care what my company thinks about Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine?”) The anti-ESG crusade is one face of this backlash, but there’s a Main Street reality to it for some: “Why can’t I just go to work anymore?
Demographics are, of course, part of the story. According to Gallup, “Younger adults are more likely than older adults to believe businesses should take a stance: 59 percent of those aged 18 to 29 think as much, compared with 51 percent of those aged 30 to 44, 41 percent of those aged 45 to 59, and 43 percent of those aged 60 and older. Asian and Black adults are the most likely of all racial/ethnic groups to believe businesses should take a public stance on political and social issues. About three-quarters of each group (74 percent and 72 percent, respectively) say businesses should take a public stance, compared with 49 percent of Hispanic adults and 41 percent of White adults.”
However, 58 percent of consumers think it’s inappropriate for companies to take a stand on social issues. So, what are you supposed to do?
The path forward
The first step is getting to know your people. Not the national polls. Not the trends you read about online. Know your customers and your employees.
Here are three options for thinking about how to communicate in 2024 and beyond.
Commit to having a voice—and be okay with being wrong. You may decide you want to shape the narrative. This might mean a busy year, but it could be worth it. Nike, as we know, saw its market cap increase after the decision to sponsor Colin Kaepernick (after an initial dip). Disney, meanwhile, continues to struggle after being labeled “woke.” AB-InBev’s stock price was up on the year despite the backlash against Bud Light. The key may be knowing who you are as a leadership team and employee group and accepting what comes with it over time.
Identify priority issues you’ll take a stance on. It can be good to take positions, but you need to know what matters to your people. Are you a bank or FinTech? Maybe it makes sense to announce you’ll be taking stances only on issues related to access to small business loans and providing banking services in underserved communities. If you take this approach, you can focus on listening to your people and identifying, say, between two and five priority issues that the company will be leaders in.
Declare your neutrality. You can come out and state that your business is about the business and nothing more. You won’t be taking political stances that aren’t related to operations. This is an option, but again, you need to know your people well. It could be viewed as a shrewd decision to focus on what you can control. It could also be viewed as abdicating a leadership role in your community. In 2024, you’ll also need to take a hard look at political causes your business and leaders support or risk appearing disingenuous. Home Depot, for instance, is facing backlash after it was said to have donated to Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election.
Whatever path you choose, each start with a few best practices:
Establish a cross-functional employee relations working group. This isn’t just HR. It should have representatives from functional teams, legal, comms., government affairs, etc. The idea is to establish a team that has a holistic view of how your people are thinking and feeling about the business and understand what’s coming down the pike. This can—and should!—be a part-time role. Start with something simple—say 30 minutes a week—and be willing to adapt. You’re likely to find common threads of concern and opportunity.
Set up or refresh employee listening groups to help spot issues. Establish small teams, five to 20 people, placed around the business to give you the real picture. These individuals should be cross-generational and cross-level, but established and mature enough in their career to understand the importance of their role and the confidentiality of their role and discussions. They will inform the employee relations working group.
Train front-line leaders and communicators to see risks and opportunities they may not have seen before. Bring the issue to the attention of the employee relations team, which they should view as a resource, who can then make informed decisions.
Jackson Hayes is an Associate Partner and Ryan Toohey is a Partner at Dentons Global Advisors.