Employees care deeply about societal and cultural issues

A new Gartner HR survey finds the events of the past six months have created workplace tension, and 68% would quit their job for a different organization.

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Politics can no longer be left at the door. A new Gartner survey finds that 68% of employees would consider quitting their current job and working with an organization with a stronger viewpoint on the social issues that matter most to them.

This differed by age; the study found this was the case for 78% of Gen Z/millennials, 62% of Gen Xers and 50% of baby boomers.

The same HR survey of 3,000 employees in February found that employees whose employer has taken a strong stance on current societal and cultural issues are twice as likely to report high job satisfaction.

Gartner has seen a "significant rise in employee activism that was bubbling up but that increased with the #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter" movements, said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice, of the impetus for the survey.

For example, Kropp cited employees at Google who threatened to quit if the company continued its partnership with the Pentagon over the use of AI in the military.

In the wake of the disruption, conflict and competing points of views related to the 2020 election, Gartner wondered how this might be impacting employees' job decisions. "One question we were wondering is, is all this just talk or is it real? We found it is real, Kropp said. "Employees will vote with their feet on what companies they want to work for or not based on what the company stands for or doesn't stand for."

SEE: Politics and religion: How the new normal neutralized former work taboos (TechRepublic) 

Now, we're at a place where people discuss issues at work, he said. Part of the reason is because of the push to have a more inclusive work environment and "bring your whole self to work," which means a person's societal, cultural and political beliefs on both sides of an issue, he said.

"That's one of the realities where we no longer keep all that outside. It's been fused and mushed together, and more so because of the pandemic."

Take action and be transparent

Senior executives should be "very alarmed" by the 68% figure and take it seriously, Kropp said. Taking a position is better than taking none, he stressed.

The Gartner data found that in the U.S., over two-thirds (69%) of employees reported being very satisfied when their organizations took action in response to the protests and demonstrations against racial injustice, compared to 50% who were very satisfied when their organizations issued a public statement.

"Whatever set of values you have as a company, you have to do something on what matters to you," Kropp said. While companies can't get involved in every issue, they need to pick the ones that are important to them and take some sort of action.

They also need to explain to their workforce why they've made the decision to invest dollars or their reputation or brand in something and be "open and transparent."

Even if a portion of your workforce disagrees with the action, being transparent increases employee engagement, he said.

Kropp acknowledges that this is a tricky environment to navigate, but even if an executive feels as though they will be alienating certain people, "be clear on why you did what you did and what returns you expect and treat it as a business initiative—not a charity initiative. When you do, you're able to elevate the engagement levels of all your employees," he said.

Some companies have taken a stance on hot-button political issues, Kropp noted, such as Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, who said the bank would no longer fund certain gun manufacturers in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

Other steps employers should take

The survey found that nearly two-thirds of managers (64%) have not been provided with resources for navigating political discussions with the employees they manage, the Gartner survey found.

"Part of the issue is that a lot of employers don't realize how significant of an issue" the infusion of politics in the workplace is, Kropp said. Most senior managers grew up in a different time and they are not aware of how fundamental an issue this is for the generation coming into the workplace now, he said.

To manage employee productivity and engagement during times of disruption, HR leaders should help employees understand workplace emotions and manage interactions. Doing so models appropriate behaviors and sets the right tone.

HR leaders should:

  • Help employees understand workplace emotions and manage interactions.

  • Create safe spaces for productive conversations.

  • Identify ways to act in line with organizational culture.

HR leaders can work with their communications leaders and other internal stakeholders to communicate to employees a message that does four things:

1.       Acknowledges employees' distractions and feelings and shares resources with employees and managers on how to handle stress and conflict.

2.      Shares a plan for productive conversations.

3.      Reiterates the organization's core values.

4.      Identifies future steps the organization will take.

Take your head out of the sand

According to a recent Gartner survey, 84% of U.S. employees reported discussing politics in the workplace. However, it is often difficult for an employee to understand when, where and how to share thoughts and feelings about societal and cultural events, Kropp said.

HR leaders should create spaces for productive conversations, but at the same time, they must establish standards and norms of communication. They should also encourage employees to focus on common goals and set examples of respect and civility.

"Organizations operating in a hybrid or largely remote working environment should carefully consider how to create opportunities for dialogue among employees that don't escalate emotional reactions or increase communication fatigue," Kropp said.

"The most important thing to realize here is there's no longer a separation between work and politics," he noted. "The political and cultural and societal debates of the day are fully fused into the workplace conversations of the day. We can try to stop it, but it seems incredibly difficult to do."

Further, Kropp said, employers need to "take their head out of the  sand and take a stance and figure out how to manage that reality rather than try to prevent that reality from occurring."

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