As across the rest of American life, emotions exploded in the workplace after the election results stunned the nation, in many cases exposing fault lines within a corporate culture that had been hidden or minimized. Many who voted Republican couldn’t hide their joy, while supporters of the mostly losing Democratic side vented their sadness and frustration—and workplaces were a natural place to do it.
“Our employees are all crying,” PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi famously told a conference in Manhattan a few days after Election Day. “And the question that they are asking, especially those who are not white: ‘Are we safe?’ Women are asking, ‘Are we safe?’ LGBT people are asking, ‘Are we safe?’ I never thought I’d have to answer those questions.”
But the Indian-born business leader added that “the first thing we all have to do is to assure everybody in the United States that they are safe. Nothing has changed because of this election. What we heard was election talk and we will all come together and unify the country.”
“CEOs must recognize that employees will want to hear from them in some sense about what it means for their company,” advises Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and a member of multiple Fortune 500 boards. “And they should use it as an opportunity to bring people together. Many companies were split down the middle. It’s an opportunity to say, ‘The election is over. We have only one president at a time. What can we as leaders and companies do to make America a better place?’”
Dennis Zeleny, a C-suite consultant and former head of human relations at Sunoco, Caremark CVS and other companies, says that CEOs these days “should focus on positive messages of inclusion and commonality of purpose” and other internal values. “CEO’s can’t control an election, but they can ensure—and should highlight—the values within a company regarding diversity of thought, background, race, religion, gender and sex—and always treating all people with dignity.”