The Case for Letting Your Employees Protest
BY Abram Brown
Your employees are smart, passionate, and vocal. They're also part of the 99 percent. Here's how to keep Occupy Wall Street from becoming an HR quagmire.
Oakland Local via Flickr
STRIKE THAT: What's a company to do when politics come to the office and workers choose to strike or go to a protest?
Most businesses are feeling some discernable ripple effect from Occupy Wall Street. Maybe it's just that those rain-soaked tents line sidewalks on your way to lunch. Perhaps protestors marched past your building—or some of your staffers are politically active. What actually happens when those passionate politics creep into your office? Inc.com's Abram Brown spoke with Josh Bersin, whose Human Resources strategy firm—an Inc. 5000 honoree—is based in Oakland, California, on the frontlines when the Occupy Wall Street movement took a violent turn this week, clashing with police and initiating a day-long, city-wide general strike stemming from Occupy Oakland. Bersin has a straightforward piece of advice for managers dealing with the chaos: Take a deep breath and let employees speak their minds.
Everyone seems to have an intense view on Occupy Wall Street. Should managers attempt to keep that out of the workplace? Our philosophy is that companies have to tolerate and just accept diversity. You have to create an environment where people talk about issues, are comfortable with differences, and then put them aside and work together. If a company doesn't do that, it will actually hurt them.
How could it hurt them? If your company takes a position that's unpopular among even part of its workforce, all you're going to do is alienate people. People talk to each other. If a group of employees have something on their mind, and you as CEO try to squelch it, it’s not going to go away. If employees are extremely emotionally charged about it, they might comment about it online and hurt your employment brand. It's so easy to write, "My boss is so terrible because he wouldn't let take a day off to do such and such." That goes onto Facebook. Then a bunch of people find it, and then they don't want to come work for you. I don't think [the politics of Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Oakland is] a good issue to be fighting right now. So just being a little tolerant is better, just in terms of morale and engagement.
Your research says diversity in the workplace, including diversity of opinion, can actually fuel growth. This company that we did this research with—an aerospace-engineering firm—focused the studies on different work groups. They found that the groups that had the most diversity were actually building better products and were more productive.
And workforces today are hardly still in the 1950s. The world has become so heterogenous that most companies have situations where people have to work with people of different nationalities, different races, and different ages. You shouldn't build a company that's all white males who think the same way. It's impossible. If you act like that as a management team and create policies that push people in that direction, you actually get less out of your people.
So if an employee wants to go out on strike, you'd let them? If we had an employee that wanted to, I’d say, go ahead: take a day off. Unless it was a month off, I don't think it would make much difference. As long as they weren't writing graffiti on the building.
Surely that mentality might differ by company? Right. If you're a retail company, and you have no employees in the store, then that's a problem. If you're an accounting firm and one of your staff takes an afternoon to go protest, my advice is not to get in his or her way.