Typically, executives and HR leaders in companies conscientiously work to create organizational cultures in which people are comfortable being themselves. We set policies and practices and conduct employee surveys to make sure people feel engaged, have a sense of belonging and are comfortable within the workplace culture.

Take note: we are shifting to a whole new standard.

Three dynamics compel us to think about this differently.

First, research confirms corporate brand is significantly tied to favorable impressions of company reputation, sales experience and recruiting appeal. Moreover, we understand better the impact every employee has on the brand’s reputation. Each employee contributes to the brand experience with customers, stakeholders and employee candidates. What we now realize that the impact on the brand is not just these direct touchpoints. The brand is also impacted by how employees conduct themselves outside of work in their interactions when not on company time or property and how they present on social media. Employees are brand ambassadors for their organization 24×7.

Thus, this poses a new dilemma: how do employees balance this role with their rights to express their own personal views and opinions? When employees use Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Linked In outside of work to share personal perspectives that may damage a company brand, does that fall under the jurisdiction of the company’s oversight? And if so, what should be done? If an employee attends a private party and expresses hatred toward a group of people or behaves abusively, what can be done to mitigate the negative impact on the organization? Is it an issue only if someone posted online about it? If an employee publicly behaves in a way that goes against the company’s values, is that actionable in the same way as if it was done at work? These are not hypothetical questions. Companies face these situations daily today as we see in the news.

From another angle, employees are offering their opinions to executives about business actions and decisions that go against their values. They may stop work in protest or ask to be taken off a project because they believe it goes against their personal values. How should executives best manage this?

There is also a rise in disrespectful behavior within companies where individuals feel it is all right to call out and shame colleagues and superiors publicly if they think they are not as “woke” as they should be. This behavior — done under the guise of being more inclusive when in fact it is inappropriate — is another form of bullying. It should be treated as such although leaders new to the DE&I journey often fear a backlash and allow this inappropriate, non-inclusive behavior to continue which creates fear and divisiveness.

Additionally, executives are unsure about their public statements regarding world events. A CEO whose employees work in a building close to where a nearby shooting took place wished to make a public statement regarding how things were handled by police and assure the employees of their safety and the company’s care for them. The CEO was advised to limit comments to his care for and assurances of his staff. Was the counsel wise? Is it wrong for leaders to share their perspectives with their teams?

Lastly, the principle-based and regulatory-based focus on social values and rights affect how we set expectations for effective, healthy work cultures. Companies have new duties to deepen their diversity, equity and inclusion competencies and outcomes. Some wonder if it possible to set guidelines for a work culture where employees conform and still feel they are “real”? As a manager, is it safe to have a conversation with one’s team about employees’ feelings about what goes on in the world? Are managers capable of facilitating such discussions? If not, who can help facilitate these difficult conversations or train leaders to be able to lead them?

Human Resource and Chief Diversity Officers are grappling with these questions today. Is it ok to set explicit parameters about employee behavior outside of work? Can a company establish expectations for employees’ communications and actions that support the company’s values? Where are the lines between employee rights and duties? What policies should be in place for executives and managers regarding sharing their personal views without being accused of imposing them on others?

Changes Ahead

Organizations are introducing new guidelines and guardrails. Examples include:

  • Publishing explicit parameters citing communication within the organization and outside on personal channels that is inflammatory is unacceptable.
  • Setting guidelines for appropriate behavioral standards at work and in public and stating participation in abusive or inflammatory actions as unacceptable;
  • Documenting and training employees on their contribution and roles as brand ambassadors and the duties intrinsic in the role, including what is out of line, e.g., hate speech, illegal behavior, abusive behavior; etc.
  • Training managers to facilitate potentially sensitive or contentious topics, so that when employees raise a concern about a practice within the company that goes against their values they can listen and create a safe space for dialogue. This also requires managers to show respect for employees who say they are not comfortable working on something they feel is wrong and work on viable solutions.

Professionals making these changes are creating a new, higher level. No longer is it “Bring your whole authentic self to work”. The new standard is to “Bring your best, highest and respectful self to work.”

The goal is to create organizations that are explicit in their values, inclusive of all, holding space for differing perspectives and views while requiring respect for one another. When we create these working environments and are clear what is acceptable and what is not, people thrive and bring their best and highest selves to work. Who would not relish working in a culture like that?

Creating a culture of inclusion is certainly one of today’s most important and worthwhile leadership challenges. When successful, inclusive companies are more productive, collaborative, they see innovation flourish and our workplaces truly become the model for the culture change we want to see in our communities and the world.

Feel free to call us for support to build an ideal work culture. We promise to bring our best, highest and respectful selves to the task.

Dr. Donna Hamlin leads the CHROs2GO practice in the 2GO Advisory Group. We work with clients to improve human and organizational performance. Reach out to learn how we can support you!