Hey managers, I know what you’re thinking: Now that we are getting a new president, will your employees finally pipe down?
Your staff has been on constant edge these past four years, at one another’s throats over one employee’s MAGA hat or another employee’s Black Lives Matter T-shirt — and at you for not seeming to care about either of those things.
You’ve often wanted to yell, “Between 9 and 5, it is company policy that we do not care about anything other than producing widgets. Get back to work.” But how can you be heard if everyone’s out at a protest, or even worse, protesting you?
It’s like your employees slept through Capitalism 101: Companies are inherently psychopathic, pressured by the market to be completely amoral and self-interested. Why would a company take a political stand and risk alienating a customer?
This latest batch of rabble-rousers aren’t the ones you’re used to — organized blue-collar workers, protesting for higher wages or better working conditions. These are white-collar types like engineers and analysts, project managers and marketing pros. They’re supposed to be your capitalist allies, your mini-mes-in-training!
You might want to fire them all, but you also desperately need them, and therefore need to keep them happy. What’s a poor manager to do?
First, take a deep breath, stare out your expansive bay window and resign yourself to the fact that this isn’t a fad. Workplace expectations are changing. The classic rules that the 40-and-up crowd grew up with — no talking about race, religion or politics in the workplace — are eroding under the influence of millennial and Gen Z workers.
Blame their parents, but surveys indicate that employees in their 20s and 30s want to work for companies whose purpose extends beyond profit-making. They value companies that have a positive impact on society, show a commitment to a diverse and inclusive work force and are focused on issues such as pay equity and the environment.
You’d think these “kids” would want to make Birkenstocks or granola. But no! A lot of them want to work for large companies doing big, ambitious things, and seem to believe that you can do good while also having a 401(k).
So your company told its employees it also deeply cares about these things, and parrots that language on its Jobs and About pages, hoping it will entice talented young workers.
But over the past few years, a lot of these brand promises have butted against reality.
Like the time The Wing wrote “It’s not a reach when we climb together” on its stairs, but reportedly left its Black and brown employees at the bottom of the ladder. Or when Wayfair donated $100,000 to support those “in dire need of basic necessities at the border,” but sold twice that amount in beds to the contractor operating detention centers caging migrant children. Or when Pinterest curated a list of some pretty picture boards for International Women’s Day, all while said to be discriminating against female employees of color.
“But,” you may shout, “don’t they understand that marketing is always an illusion?!”
True. But don’t you understand that you can’t promise your customers or employees one thing and then deliver another?
The point is, you and your company got yourself into this pickle, and you can’t expect it to go away when President Trump walks out of the White House doors.
You could tackle the problem by doing what other great managers and executives have tried. The CrossFit strategy of getting your employees and associates on a video call and spouting your thoughts on Black Lives Matter and the “Chinese who let this virus get out of the laboratory.” The Coinbase approach of issuing a memo saying that there will be no more politics in the workplace other than your politics, which are simply to make money off everyone on the planet.
Or maybe you could try a different approach.
Rather than lecture your employees — “Dictators need customer relationship databases, too. End of discussion!” — you might do better to shift your mental framework and try to understand your employees’ concerns.
Lest you think this is the end of capitalism, just think how Machiavellian this strategy can actually be. Research shows that by looking beyond profit-making and embracing a strong sense of purpose, you can actually engage your employees and eke even more work out of them!
Also, remember that you can listen to your employees without becoming a doormat. Focus groups, employee surveys and listening sessions can help you engage with employees before any bubbling tension builds to mutiny.
Of course, some employees will occasionally lose sight of the fact that they are working for a moneymaking corporation. You can always remind them of this fact by putting posters on the walls with your favorite capitalist slogans.
But a better strategy might be to sincerely embrace the mission and values your marketing teams dreamed up. A strong moral compass might help steer your company from some immoral decisions in the long run, engendering trust from both your employees and the outside world.
No matter what your company writes on its website, we all know why it decided to build the everlasting toothbrush, the world’s fluffiest pillow or a crypto company on the blockchain. You wanted to make money, and that’s fine. But why not actually try caring a bit? America’s new work force expects it of you, and your company needs them more than they need you.
Jessica Powell (@themoko) is a contributing opinion writer, the author of “The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional but Essentially True Silicon Valley Story” and a former vice president at Google.
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