Fraser Seitel
Fraser Seitel

It’s 2024, and everything is cockeyed. Beyonce, of all people, is topping the country music charts. Hyper-annoying Stephen A. Smith is the highest-paid on-air talent at ESPN. And Donald Trump, Lord help us, is the odds-on favorite to be our next President. The world has gone bananas.

Which brings us to the hottest question in public relations: Should employees be given a voice in running the organization?

In the old days—before social media and the Internet and Silicon Valley work/life balance companies—the answer was a resounding “no.” You got paid for doing your job, and management got paid for making decisions. Period. Today, it’s not that simple.

In the aftermath of COVID remote work, companies have faced pushback from employees about returning full-time to the office. Amazon headquarters employees in Seattle walked out when CEO Andy Jassy had the temerity to ask them to return to the office three days a week. Eager to avoid similar internal dissension, firms from Google to JPMorgan Chase to Skadden have had to compromise on employee attendance.

Adding to newfound employee muscle is the societal push for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that encourages internal voices to be heard in organizational matters, large and small, from time-off policies to healthy food in breakrooms and vending machines to environmental/social/governance requisites of customers.

While “enlightened”—i.e. timid—management might publicly proclaim the virtues of greater employee participation in corporate decision-making, the truth is that the democratic empowerment of staff signals potential danger for any organization.

Here are three reasons why.

First, NBC

A month ago, NBCUniversal’s News Group Chairman Cesar Conde was pleased to announce that NBC had landed Ronna McDaniel, the former head of the Republican Party, as a special contributor.

Ms. McDaniel, an early supporter of Donald Trump’s complaint of an unfair election, would, according to Mr. Conde, add a unique, insider’s perspective on the Republican Party. Or so she would have, had the prima donna, left-leaning employees at NBC not thrown a hissy fit at the new Republican in their midst.

First, Chuck Todd, appearing as a guest on the “Meet the Press” show from which he was reportedly ushered out as host, registered his objection to the new hire. Former Republican “Morning Joe” Scarborough was next to protest the hiring of the “anti-democratic” McDaniel. From there, a parade of fellow NBC and MSNBC on-air personalities added their two cents to the anti-McDaniel chorus.

And predictably, two days after he had triumphantly announced his signing coup, a chastened Conde, his proverbial tail tucked firmly between his proverbial legs, let it be known that Ms. McDaniel would not, after all, be joining NBC News.

In terms of employee empowerment: Should Conde, whose future with NBC is now likely limited, have consulted his more cantankerous employees in advance about the plans to hire McDaniel? Sure. But should NBC have capitulated so immediately and completely to the demands of its employees, triggering a likely multi-million dollar lawsuit and expense, not to mention abject embarrassment to the network? No way.

Second, NPR

National Public Radio, meanwhile, was rattled as the result of a blog post by Uri Berliner, a 25-year NPR editor, who accused the network of having lost its credibility by overemphasizing DEI in its internal culture as well as race and identity politics in its external news coverage.

The long-time editor’s denunciation of his employer’s non-journalistic bias triggered a strong rebuke from NPR management, which understandably claimed that its news coverage was fair and unbiased. NPR’s editor-in-chief insisted that “inclusion among our staff, with our sourcing and in our overall coverage is critical to telling the nuanced stories of this country and our world.”

Perhaps. But Mr. Berliner’s story did point out specific examples of how NPR was increasingly elevating the importance within the organization of certain issues and employee groups. Among them:

  • NPR journalists were required to ask everyone they interviewed their race, gender and ethnicity and had to enter it into a centralized tracking system.
  • A growing DEI staff offered regular meetings imploring staff members to “start talking about race.”
  • Bolstered by a $1 million grant from the NPR Foundation, a burgeoning number of employee affinity groups began meeting and speaking up. These included MGIPOC (Marginalized Genders and Intersex People of Color); Mi Gente (Latinx employees); NPR Noir (Black employees); Ummah (Muslim-identifying employees); Women, Gender-Expansive, and Transgender People in Technology Throughout Public Media; Khevre (Jewish heritage and culture); and NPR Pride (LGBTQIA employees).

In light of the hornet’s nest Berliner has exposed, it’s difficult to see how he continues his tenure at NPR. Even more difficult is how NPR wrestles back its control of journalistic standards now that employees have experienced such internal influence.

Third, Google

Of all the companies that have dealt with the complexities of increased employee empowerment, few offer the lessons that Google has to share.

From its founding three decades ago, the search engine colossus has been a model of employee inclusion and concern. From offering on-site gyms, screening rooms, nap pods, free gourmet meals and dozens of other amenities, Google, in many ways, is an employee paradise.

Yet as it has grown and prospered, Google has been wracked by recurring episodes of internal discord. Among them:

  • In 2018, after the company awarded a lavish exit package to a manager charged with sexual misconduct, 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout to protest the payout and other workplace issues.
  • In 2020, Google employees formed a union to push back against “unethical” decisions like signing a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense on artificial intelligence. No matter that the DOD contract meant billions of dollars of revenue for the company, the DOD was “evil.”
  • Last year, when Google management asked workers to return to the office three days a week, employees took to internal message channels and external news sources to voice their disapproval.

By 2024, the world’s most benevolent employer had had enough. Last month, Google summarily fired an engineer who interrupted a corporate presentation of the company’s work with the Israeli military. This month, Google announced plans to tone down a 14-year-old internal message board that allowed employees to question sensitive client-related issues like the war in Gaza. When Google also recently announced hundreds of layoffs, its union protested the cuts were “needless” and vowed it wouldn’t “stop fighting until our jobs are safe!”

Google, it seemed, had learned the hard way that while employee inclusion and two-way communication remain important values for any organization, it’s never a good idea to let the inmates run the asylum.


Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s the author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation” and “Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].