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5 Questions Leaders Must Ask Before Addressing Societal Issues

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As pressure intensifies, many organizations have been caught unprepared, reacting as issues arise and scrambling to determine how to respond. Consider this framework for leading your people through increasingly complex issues.

Even before the arrival of the pandemic, many leaders were increasingly finding themselves navigating shifting pressure from multiple stakeholders—each with their own opinion on the role of business when it comes to hot-button social issues. The global response to the pandemic and continued racial and political unrest has only escalated anxiety and divisions many of us feel across our society.

Even in public policy areas where companies have not played a historic role—such as reducing crime or ensuring election integrity—many consumers and employees say they expect businesses to lead. Just a few years ago, the expectations were different, but now leadership teams are faced with navigating this complex terrain every day. Doing so means they have to consider how their organization’s positions align with their values, and how misalignment in business practices against their company’s stated positions could cause severe reputation harm and potentially impact a company’s bottom line.

Companies are now faced with increased pressure from both internal and external stakeholders to take positions on issues that impact our daily lives—and it seems like everything has now become a partisan issue with battle lines drawn in the sand. Research conducted by Weber Shandwick, United Minds and KRC Research found that 52% of adults and 61% of employees expect businesses to play a role in bridging societal divisions. This sense is in part generational, as larger proportions of the younger generation expect businesses to play a role in bridging societal divisions compared to older generations.

As pressure intensifies, many organizations have been caught unprepared, reacting as issues arise and scrambling to determine what to respond to and how. Organizations need a framework and a consistent approach to lead their people through these increasingly complex issues. Companies must also be prepared to provide a rationale to all stakeholders—especially to their workforce—for the decisions they make and be prepared to defend their position once they communicate it.

For the past several years, our clients across the globe have increasingly had to navigate this risk-fraught terrain. These issues aren’t going to go away, and leaders are going to continue to grapple with them. Here are five concrete actions companies should take right now to better prepare themselves for the future:

1. Does the issue intersect with your company values?

Ensure that you are looking at societal issues through the lens of your stated values and mission. You can’t remain silent on an issue if you’ve made it part of your core identity as a company or brand. For example, if you’ve invested in programs that support LGBTQ+ youth as either part of your ESG commitments or your business, you risk losing credibility with your stakeholders if you don’t stand up against legislation that harms trans youth. Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s come to mind because both companies intertwine their business, their values, and their commitments to areas they care deeply about.

2. Are your employees passionate about the issue?

Your people are your best asset. We know that employees continue to look to their workplace leaders for stability – and they have expectations of you. You should review recent employee survey data and sentiment to understand what they care about and ensure that your positions reflect the values of your workforce – and when they aren’t you have a clear rationale for your position. There are always cases where your employees may be asking for something you can’t deliver but knowing where you stand and being transparent about how those decisions are made is essential. Otherwise, you risk alienating talent and harming your recruitment efforts.

3. Do you have a process in place – and does it reflect diverse voices in your company?

It’s not enough to meet when an issue becomes a national or global trending topic. A select team should regularly meet on at least a bi-weekly basis to assess risk and opportunity areas, including any percolating legislation or government policies that could prove to be a concern to your people and business, or whether the company can lend its voice and position to effectuate change and credibly shape dialogue. This team can be separate and apart from your crisis team, but inclusive of them, or consist of just senior leaders. The most important thing is that there is a group dedicated to these issues that is meeting on a regular basis. And when there is an unanticipated social issue that the company needs to assess, you need an operational model in place for swift activation to define your position and execute on communications.

4. What does the data say?

Data must be a cornerstone of your approach. Use a predictive trend and monitoring functions that leverage data-driven insights to foresee external issues that cross into your business. Solicit qualitative context and intelligence from internal stakeholders that allow leaders to better understand possible risk areas and define a position.

5. Can we plan now?

Undertake an exercise where you gather the key leaders within your company to outline the possible social issues that overlap with your business and the expectations of your workforce. Also, use this exercise to identify gaps in your processes and structures and correct them. Work to define your position on those issues now and then plan against them, starting with anything you’ve said previously. Once you have defined your position on the issue, then socialize what you believe and what you care about so that stakeholder expectations are met.

Leaders must carefully consider the events on which the company takes a stance (whether reactively or proactively) or advocates for and puts resources behind, balancing the company’s business objectives with the varied interests and priorities of its constituents.

As our world evolves and societal and workplace issues continue to converge, organizations are increasingly in need of bespoke processes and protocols that enable corporate leadership to make the most informed decisions about what they should say, if anything at all, and what actions they can take when faced with a potentially controversial issue. Many organizations have diverse stakeholders, but decisions about these issues must be rooted in authenticity and guided by a company’s values.


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