Balancing employee interests during a global conflict
January 12, 2024
As global conflicts continue to unfold and further polarize society, employers face challenges in helping all employees feel included at work. Employees may hold good faith beliefs that conflict with those of other employees or stakeholders, so employers need to be thoughtful as they engage with these topics. While navigating polarizing conflicts is never easy, genuinely striving to balance competing interests is the best way forward.
It is generally understood that the workplace is not the setting for divisive or political discussions. But when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many employers were quick to demonstrate support for Ukraine. These statements were largely uncontroversial and in many cases the sentiments were shared by employees. But the escalation of more recent global conflicts have resulted in some employers avoiding any comment to maintain an appearance of neutrality.
Why can employers comment on some political situations but not others?
What differentiates the situation from Ukraine with other geopolitical conflicts is the amount of divisiveness on the issue within Canadian society. When the war between Russia and Ukraine began the general sentiments were overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine. Although there were undoubtedly employees who were sympathetic to Russia, those views fell outside what was commonly accepted in mainstream Canadian society as being within the range of acceptable opinions. This range, sometimes called the “opinion corridor” defines the boundaries of permissible social debate.
Understanding this range is important for employers. Generally, employers should not convey messaging that contradict employees’ deeply held beliefs or opinions that fall within the opinion corridor. That the belief or opinion is deeply held is important and intuitive. For example, comments disparaging one’s favourite movie will be better received than those disparaging their religious beliefs.
No single entity defines the opinion corridor. It is formed by societal views as a whole. So it is crucial for employers and employees alike to engage with diverse sources of information to appreciate the diverse set of beliefs and opinions that are present within society. By doing so, employers can approach polarizing situations without causing undue offence.
What should employers say?
Employers should take a balanced approach to these complex situations, but it can be challenging to figure out what is and is not balanced on particularly divisive issues.
Employers need not enter the fray and claim any allegiances, speaking to universal values is a practical recommendation. For example, employers can recognize the humanitarian toll of an armed conflict on employee wellbeing by condemning violence and attacks on innocent civilians. At the very least, we are joined by our common humanity which cries out for us to acknowledge the impact of violence, hate and bigotry.
Why say anything at all?
Although employers don’t generally need to acknowledge the impacts of international conflict on employees, it may be in their best interest to demonstrate awareness.
Employees are increasingly conscious of their job satisfaction and how their time at work contributes to their overall well-being. Employees want to work for employers that will engage with them to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion.
Just as consumers are more conscious of socially responsible companies, employees are paying attention to the actions and inaction of their employers. When employers condemn some forms of hate and bigotry while being silent on others that are similarly engaged in the public’s consciousness, they risk being seen as ignorant or apathetic. That does not contribute towards inclusion.
What about statements made by employees?
Diverse workplaces will inevitably include employees with conflicting, deeply held personal beliefs. To maintain harmony, the workplace cannot be the place for these beliefs to be debated.
Employers may insist that employees refrain from discussing divisive political issues. But to avoid potential discrimination claims, any policy or practice must be legally defensible under human rights principles of equitable treatment. Policies which are not neutral on their face or in practice – such as those that allow free speech in support of one group’s position but not another’s – may be subject to heightened scrutiny.
Where can I learn more about managing divisive discussion in the workplace?
During Module 3 of our Inclusive Workplace Series we discussed how and when to discuss divisive issues in the workplace. If you were not able to attend and would like to receive our tip sheet, please email firstname.lastname@example.org .
On January 17th, we will be running Module 4 of the series: Addressing Antisemitism and Islamophobia in the Workplace. We encourage you to join us for the complimentary session taking place from 12:00 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. EST. For more information and to register, click here.