The Economics Of Leading In The Age Of The Cancel Culture

Right or wrong, today we are in an environment where fuses are short, grudges are long and the effects to an organization can be financially devastating.

Sit, stand. Say something, say nothing. Act, react. Never has it been so easy to provoke — by words, deeds or the absence of either. How can you effectively lead, when every day it seems like you must cross a potential minefield, inside and outside your own organization?

This is an apolitical look at the economic and human capital impact of leading under a microscope.

Politics, religion, equality, race, sexual orientation and even sports, all of the topics you might avoid on a first date or at a family reunion, have become daily corporate hot buttons. Each of which has the potential to damage relationships and revenue.

It’s unclear where the terms “cancel culture” or “call out culture” originated. What is more important is the fact that this has rapidly escalated into an aggressive tool used to pressure others into sharing their opinions and behaviors. Cancel, boycott, walkout. Who is taking these actions? Employees, customers, the general public, amplified by the speed and reach of social media.

The economic impact on companies can be felt from the inside out…employees walking out, customers boycotting or stakeholders divesting, as well as the cost of bad publicity.

Let’s take a step back from the electrically charged issues and look at the impact on your three main constituencies: employees, customers and investors, and what steps you can take to fortify your brand and avert damage. Before jumping into the external topic du jour, look inward.

1. Define your employer brand and reinforce your culture before it is defined for you by outsiders, or by a statement or position that can be perceived in an unfavorable way.

Recently a fitness brand CEO came under fire for insensitive comments. He apologized, but additional comments surfaced that revealed a history of bias which caused him to step down.

How does this affect your succession planning?

How does this affect your employee culture? If these opinions were unexpected and unknown, could that cause division within the organization? Could it repel qualified candidates and drive away good employees which then adversely impacts growth and revenue?

2. Scrutinize your customer brand. Look for any areas where you may need to update, modernize products, services or marketing messaging. Being tone deaf is often due to laziness. Messaging should always be reviewed from varied perspectives.

This past week several major food manufacturers announced changes to some stereotypical brand characters in their lineup. The need to refresh or retire these brands could not have been a surprise to those organizations. Why did they choose to keep them unchanged for so long? Was it cost? Not wanting to draw attention to the subject of racism? Not taking feedback from customers seriously enough? Simply too busy and focused elsewhere?

Fortunately, these brands were self aware enough to take action, albeit long overdue, instead of being “called out” directly. Hopefully they inspire other companies to ask some tough internal questions too.

3. Collaborate with other C-suite leaders to gain perspective

In Talent is a Team Sport I advocate for a leadership “Collaboration Core” of the CEO, CFO, CHRO and Chief Communication Officer for any strategic planning and implementation. I would add the Chief Counsel for the legal perspectives that can help modernize employee policies. Here are some examples of that collaboration:

• Human resources + Legal

What are the company’s expectations of employees, who all represent your brand?

Reevaluate employment policies that outline acceptable and not-tolerated behaviors. Have a clear, written, company policy for employee conduct (as dictated by each state).

An ice cream brand introduced a new flavor and ad campaign in response to recent events. Not all publicity is good publicity in the eyes of employees, customers or investors.

What impact does this have on employees? If your culture is in agreement with a position, then they may support such actions. If not, those behavioral policies may be what prevents a walkout.

Further, what resources has the company given to their front-line employees who service and sell to customers? Training for dealing with unhappy or angry customers takes time. If customer service agents are unprepared for such an uptick, they may become stressed, and burned out. Keep in mind that nationwide, most employees have been under additional strain due to the Covid-19 shutdowns, and this could worsen morale and productivity.

Does the need to make a statement outweigh the risk of alienating some customers, burdening employees and frustrating investors? Only that organization can know.

• Human Resources + Marketing + D&I

Once you’ve defined it, hire into your culture. Whom do you want to attract? Now more than ever, hire and train with an emphasis on “soft skills,” communication and EQ.

How are you doing it? Collaborate with marketing and diversity and inclusion to look at your customer and employee brands to see if they align. Build a talent community that will fill your pipeline with warm candidates who will align with your brand, execute on your philosophies and facilitate a succession plan.

For those that no longer fit in within the culture. have an honest discussion about what their role is and determine if there is a path forward. If not, silent disagreement can derail strong teams.

• CEO + Communications

Hot button issues will arise. Pause, listen, reflect and then take your position. Knee-jerk reactions can spark outrage elsewhere.

– Maintain trust: your employees need to know where and with whom they stand. Customers need to know where you stand too. Of course positions evolve, but do not change with every breeze that comes, or you will set that expectation.

– Be clear. Use active language, such as: “These are the steps we’ve taken and here is why…” It is always important to explain the why. However, what you say, does not ensure that is what your audience will hear. Therefore actively solicit and monitor feedback from employees, customers and investors.

– Don’t bully other organizations to join you. Facilitate discussion and encourage progress on issues. But to impose your will or thinking defeats the very essence and goals of diversity and inclusion.

Companies and employees may make errors or choices that propel them into a public fray. Right or wrong, today we are in an environment where fuses are short, grudges are long and the effects to an organization can be financially devastating.

Remain fixed on the solutions and value you bring to your clients. Be self aware about your brand. Set expectations for employees and strengthen your culture. Operational and environmental issues will come up, but if you are strong in your own identity and values, navigating the external forces will be less challenging. #tolerance.