How Can Companies Use DEI Initiatives to Push Back Against

A poll by NBC News and Generation Lab revealed that around half of college students wouldn’t room with someone with differing political beliefs than theirs. In addition, even more students said they wouldn’t date someone who voted for a different candidate than they did. Alongside these statistics were others that revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, record lows of trust in public institutions.


While the poll was of college students, it’s certainly reflective of the current political climate in the U.S. in general: widespread polarization equating to a line drawn in the sand between neighbors, family members, classmates, and coworkers. That polarization, along with the breakdown of public trust in our nation’s institutions - the military, financial institutions, law enforcement government, schools and universities and religious institutions – sets a stage of widespread skepticism and distrust.


In a climate where people are wary not only of each other, but of foundational institutions, businesses are facing a complex scenario. On the one hand, companies are embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on a larger scale than ever before in the workplace. On the other hand, the country is facing increasing class and political polarization that pose great challenges to the goals of DEI, which is unifying a diverse workforce. While companies invest resources to improve their DEI profile, the undercurrent of polarization in the larger culture often reverberate within company culture, challenging these initiatives.


However, as Einstein famously said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” In this challenging context, companies have a unique opportunity: to become stewards of unification, undercutting the effects of polarization. In fact, businesses are uniquely positioned to be the champions of DEI-driven cultures in that they are largely free from the bureaucracy that limits government and the traditions that restrict change in military and religious institutions, as well as some universities. When you consider that DEI leadership strategies improve a company’s profitability, employee satisfaction and retention, brand image and longevity, businesses have strong incentives to continue pushing such initiatives.


The fact that companies with high DEI and ESG rankings win significant loyalty and praise from consumers says something important about human nature: that belonging and inclusion are more than benchmarks for corporations, they are our birthrights as human beings. That might help explain why, according to a poll by Glassdoor, 76% of job seekers said that diversity in a company’s workforce was an important factor to them when choosing which organizations to apply to. It seems that in the divisive times we’re living in, people are looking towards businesses to help bridge the divides.


Most companies are familiar with common strategies to implement DEI initiatives in the workplace, from analyzing employee demographics and aiming recruiting efforts to include more diversity to holding awareness workshops to build empathy. Many companies have had to overcome internal pushback to these initiatives, but, having overcome the roadblocks to these changes, companies with DEI strategies report improvements in productivity and in workplace relations.


Despite these accomplishments, the reality of political and social polarization poses threats to companies and workplaces. This issue inspired The Niskanen Center and Business for America to create a four-part webinar series called Divided We Fall to discuss: “the root causes of political polarization, its social and economic costs, and what the business community can do to reduce division and have the greatest unifying impact.”


So, how do companies push back against polarizing trends to unite employees within the workplace? Is it better to stay neutral or take a stance? How can organizations engage employees in respectful dialogue on hot topics? These are the issues we’ll explore together in this post.


Is it better to stay silent or to speak out?


When it comes to speaking out publicly or even internally about social and political issues, it can feel like a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. In the case of Home Depot where the co-founder supported Trump’s candidacy, this exacerbated polarization within the organization and the company also came under fire in the press for inappropriate use of its popular brand name to rally political supporters. On the other hand, Uber dealt with a massive boycott as a result of remaining silent on a U.S. travel ban imposed on countries with a Muslim majority population in 2017, which was interpreted as them supporting the policy.

Leaders are essentially split on the issue of whether it’s best to maintain neutrality or take sides, particularly around social justice issues. In the end, your business and its board will have to decide, but before you make any public comments, make sure you check the weather within your organization. Every company will have different challenges and trend towards finding different issues important, depending on their location, demographics, and the nature of the work they do. Understanding the issues that are important to your company’s employees can help you represent them more accurately should you decide to engage in public debate.

Adopt strategies to promote responsible internal communication.

Though it may be tempting to try to tackle politically-oriented animosity within your organization with draconian measures like censoring political discussions, this will likely backfire. Take a lesson from Basecamp who had a third of their workforce quit after banning social or political discussions. Frustration, fear, doubt and insecurity about the country’s social and political climate can lead employees to experience anxiety or anger which is best expressed in a supportive environment. Instead of trying to silence them, you can promote workshops such as nonviolent communication workshops or other forms of responsible communication that will give them tools to engage in discussions more diplomatically. Learning these skills can also help alleviate their anxiety around these issues as they learn to look at things from different perspectives.

You may even adopt company communication guidelines that outline the expectations your company has of its employees in terms of respectful exchanges of ideas. Giving employees clear expectations and the resources to fulfill them can help them understand appropriate ways of talking about controversial topics in the workplace.

If your workplace is experiencing particularly heated political and social debates among its staff, you may consider hiring a conciliation specialist or a mediator to help diffuse the situation. The Stanford-based deliberation project America in One Room, for example, helps people find common ground by asking them to solve pressing problems together.

Notice that in all of these scenarios, employees are allowed to express themselves, and are being seen and heard while being supported in learning to communicate respectfully. Matt Abrahams, lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB and host of the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast says, “I’m actually in favor of people communicating about these hot button issues and not holing up in their own ideological bubbles. And the workplace is one of the few opportunities for people to talk to others outside their ideological sphere. Unfortunately, most people in leadership positions, especially mid-level managers, don’t have much training in that kind of work — that facilitative, psychological-safety mindset. Academia and work are great forums for these discussions, but you need to set up guidelines and ground rules to help you referee these interactions, and that needs to be done by someone who has the skills, experience, and patience to do it.”

Focus on teamwork.

Engaging employees in an external project, like a charity drive or fundraiser that everyone can get behind can help dispel differences and create deeper bonds among team members. One of the reasons polarization occurs is because of unchanneled frustration about issues that people have no direct control over. Working together on a charitable project provides a way to channel their energy towards a positive outcome. When people feel like they are making a difference, they replace fear and resentment with hope and empowerment.

Saumitra Jha, associate professor of political economy at Stanford GSB and cofounder of the Stanford Conflict and Polarization Initiative believes that empowered and informed employees can overcome divisive issues. He specifically suggests that when companies insist that “we’re all in this together,” putting their money where their mouth is can be an effective unifier among staff:

“One way that you can generate even more cooperation among employees is through finance. Specifically, giving people more ownership in a firm or a broader share index can bring them together in a material sense. It may give them a stronger feeling that they’re working together for the same objective. They’re more likely to ignore their political differences when they are empowered and feel a shared ownership in the output of the team. Businesses actually are in a good position to help bridge these divides, because businesses generally have a team structure. There’s a body of research that shows that working together as a team — as a non-hierarchical team in particular — can be effective in supporting cooperation, even when people come from very different initial viewpoints. Everyone who agrees to work for a company does so, to some extent, because they believe in the objectives of the organization. And if everyone is working toward a common goal, and feels ownership in the outcome, that unites them. So emphasizing the team aspect can be very helpful. Of course, another approach is to just pretend there’s nothing to see here. But if you ignore these partisan divides, it often just exacerbates the anger and distrust. So creating an environment where you can have these difficult conversations — in a delimited and constructive way — can restore trust. It can help people remember that we’re all humans in this together.”

Final thoughts

Though polarization is a serious problem, with party politics, misinformation, economic, racial and gender inequality all threatening to bring the house down, time and again it’s proven that given the tools and opportunity to work together towards the common good, people will take it. DEI initiatives are strengthening organizations from the inside out and business leaders have the power to create environments where the democracy and unity people long to see in our public institutions is being defended and exercised

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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