#SHRMLEG 2019 Fireside Chat: Future of Work Involves More Employee, Social Issues Engagement

Are companies taking a more active role in the current political and social discussion calling for greater diversity and inclusion? Panelists during a “fireside chat” at the 2019 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Employment Law and Legislative Conference held in Washington, DC, said companies must address such issues and take steps to enhance employee engagement so their organizations can adapt in a rapidly changing and more competitive world.

The panel, composed of corporate executives representing a cross-section of industries, included:

  • Michelle Nettles, Chief People and Diversity Officer, Molson Coors;
  • Kevin Harper, Senior Vice President of HR Operations and Strategy (retired), Walmart;
  • Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Executive Vice President of Government and Corporate Affairs, Univision Communications; and
  • Mohamed Younis, Editor-in-Chief, Gallup.

Engagement in Social Issues

According to recent Gallup polling data, 58% of workers say there has been a noticeable increase in political discussions at work. Communities and employees are increasingly calling on companies to take a stance on social issues. “Disruption is constant nowadays,” said Younis. “Companies’ ability to build teams and manage people is the only way to overcome disruption.”

Change often is pushed by the employees, especially younger employees, said Nettles. Molson Coors has no official political positions, but has chosen to be more active in its efforts to increase inclusion for women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

For example, scantily clad women in bikinis used to be a staple of beer ads, Nettles said, and posters of them lined the walls at company headquarters. But, at the urging of employees, the company made a decision in 2015 to stop objectifying women in its advertising campaigns. She noted that pushback against that change decreased as the workforce at male-dominated beer distributors has become more diverse.

At Walmart, the leadership is more vocal about politics, Harper said. When the Arkansas legislature was considering a bill that many felt threatened LGBT rights, CEO Doug McMillon tweeted out his opposition and the bill was revised. The company also staked out its position on increasing the minimum wages by voluntarily increasing its minimum starting wage.

Herrera-Flanigan said the push for involvement comes from inside and outside as changes are requested by employees and community partners. Corporate leaders often get asked “Why aren’t you speaking out?” by employees and their customers. Univision was founded to give voice to Latin Americans, she explained. That audience looks to the company for basic help all the time – to inform, entertain and empower that community. When serving a community is a core part of a company’s mission, Herrera-Flanigan said, it must always ask “What does the organization’s base expect?”

Employee Engagement

There has been a shift in what employees want, Younis pointed out. Their expectations have shifted from “my paycheck to my purpose; my weaknesses to my strengths; and from my job to life,” he said. And the changes are not necessarily generational (i.e., because of the Millennials). The shifts are also due to new technology and social media. As a result, organizations need to be in touch with their employees and create an environment where employees take ownership.

Nettles advises employers to use tools to understand employee input. At Molson Coors, she notes, the employee engagement survey has been increased from once to twice per year. The company also moved to having one-on-one meetings for performance reviews and coaching with managers, which resulted in increased communications and resolving more problem at the managerial level. Nettles added that organizations can use communications tools like Yammer for real-time communications.

Walmart also has moved to conducting engagement survey twice yearly to monitor the ongoing engagement cycle, according to Harper. But surveys need to recognize who is the target audience and ask the right questions. They also solicit input from small groups, like the “Walmart Moms,” quarterly. In the case of the Walmart Moms, what started with a business purpose has expanded to include social and political feedback. “Merging areas of concerns is where the magic happens,” said Harper.

Ongoing Concerns

The issue of sexual harassment continues to be a major concern for employers with a clear split between how women and men view the problem, according to Younis. Recent Gallup data shows that 52% of women are disappointed with how society treats women. But 61% of men said they are satisfied with how society treats women.

And while 70% of women say workplace sexual harassment is a major problem, only 53% of men agree. Furthermore, 61% women say workplaces are not sensitive enough to sexual harassment. Yet only 48% of men agree with that statement, a figure that dropped significantly during and after the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Finally, 48% of women report being sexually harassed – an increase from the previous survey of 6% overall and of 8% by women under age 50. Meanwhile, only 11% of men report being victims of sexual harassment.

Nettles said that her board is asking more questions about what the company is doing regarding sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement and training. When a company takes a stance to protect its female employees from harassment, it sends a clear message to employees. She said recently that Molson Coors demoted a manager for not protecting an employee from the sexually harassing behavior of a client’s employee.

For his part, Harper advises that third-party outsiders should conduct sexual harassment training for corporate officers. And that training “should be intensive and uncomfortable.” At Walmart’s recent training, leaders were made to answer “what would you do?” in very uncomfortable scenarios in front of their peers – and the answers were not always right. “Silence is not an option,” he noted.

“I think the opportunity for businesses to shape policy is a responsibility more people are taking seriously,” said Harper. “Organizations have to be more vocal. A large business can use their scale to effect change for the good.”

Is your organization involved in social issues? How does it choose whether and how to align itself on these issues? Please share your story by leaving a comment below.


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