Just after the horrific 10/7 terror attack on Israelis, Bill Ackman, CEO of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital, stated the obvious: Companies should avoid hiring members of organizations that actively express hatred for Jews and/or support for a terrorist organization dedicated to killing Jews. That’s exactly what the members of 31 student groups at his alma mater, Harvard University, did by victim-blaming Israelis after 1,300 of its citizens were cold-bloodedly murdered by Palestinian Hamas terrorists.
Ackman’s advice was commonsensical to any CEO I know, even if few will come out and say it in such a public way. CEOs know they have a duty to customers, employees, community and shareholders to screen out for employment people with demonstrably poor judgement, like siding with anti-Semitic organizations or ideas. This is as clear cut a way of determining character as you can find.
But three weeks on from the attacks and the Harvard statements, some business leaders may—unfortunately—forget Ackman’s advice amid the day-to-day bustle of running a company.
That would be a mistake.
Actions—signing petitions, joining rallies, marches, organizations or even posting on social media platforms—reveal character, and that character is unlikely to change in the days, weeks, months or even years ahead.
It is even more important now than it was a few weeks ago to follow Ackman’s advice (and your gut): Avoid hiring haters. If anyone asks “why” because it isn’t somehow self-evident to them, here are three pragmatic reasons for doing so that they may understand:
• Judgement risk. The Harvard statement (“We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence…”) is facile and laughably wrong. Anyone that signs that statement as a reaction to the barbaric attack on Israeli babies, women, the elderly and young people in the prime of their lives—I think we would all agree—shows incredibly poor judgement.
It is notoriously difficult to screen for judgement in the hiring process (behavioral interview questions will only get you so far). By backing organizations like the ones who showed such a lack of humanity at such a clear-cut moment—at Harvard and other places—these people have revealed their true selves, leaving us only to ask: Is this someone I want to talk to my customers? Is this someone I want to bet on? Or are there others with equal ability and better judgement that I’d rather hire?
• Litigation risk. Remember that, regardless of any policies you put in place or training you provide, organizations are increasingly being held liable for the actions of employees—even when they act against policies. Companies, quite simply, are “deep pocket” targets, regardless of whether they are at fault.
A person who demonstrates illiberal or intolerant behavior in any capacity is likely to do so again. Just as your organization may survive a single incident of discrimination or harassment by an employee, if you allow the accused to remain in your employ you dramatically increase legal exposure to your organization (lawyers will undoubtedly accuse you of fostering and/or tolerating a discriminatory or abusive atmosphere should a future incident occur). If you hire a known anti-Semite, you have almost certainly created an intolerant workplace open to legal liability.
• Reputational risk. Like it or not, your organization will be affiliated with whatever your employees do and say in the increasingly ugly and dynamic public square. Potential employees who have already demonstrated hate speech or alignment with anti-Semitic values have made it much, much easier for you to identify them as at least more likely than others to involve your organization in a potentially brand-damaging episode in public or private (Think: dinner with a client and the Middle East comes up).
This is a good moment to make sure your team is screening the public facing social media of those you’re bringing into the organization to see how they’ve responded to the last few weeks using a set of clear guidelines vetted by your HR leaders. Is what you’re seeing there something you’d be comfortable having associated with your organization? Do those potential employees comport themselves in the public square in a way that reflects your values? Do they seem to know that their words—even the words they “just” re-post along to others—matter?
Remember: This isn’t about punishing them—it’s about protecting you. People can say what they want in America—no matter how hateful or hurtful—that’s their right. But it is the responsibility of the people that run America’s companies to listen carefully to what they’re saying—and act accordingly. When people tell you who they are and what they stand for, do yourself, your customers and your organization a favor. Believe them. And don’t forget them.