Defending Against the Cancel Culture from the Inside Out

Virtually any company can be seriously harmed by cancel culture from within. Denise Graziano, CEO of Graziano Associates, discusses why it matters, how you can make your business less vulnerable, and then she offers up lessons learned from others.

September 18, 2020 – It doesn’t take more than to watch the news to see how cancel culture can strike an organization from the outside. But recently a major tire manufacturer discovered how the same threat can come from within your own organizational walls, from your employees. Remember when an internal company policy or document remained internal?

Leaking a document, walkouts, defiant behavior or social media commentary can damage your culture, your customer brand and your employer brand, including your ability to recruit and retain high performers. While it can happen in any company, how can you make yours less vulnerable and why does it matter?

“The origins of this aggressive ‘cancel’ approach for persuading others to share your position are irrelevant,” said Denise Graziano, CEO of Graziano Associates. “It comes from customers, the public and/or employees. For some companies these events can be disruptive, or draw bad press and attention to company, for others the cost can be much higher. It does a great disservice to employers, especially in this year of compounded organizational stress.”

Why it Matters

Businesses suffer sometimes incalculable costs of: regaining lost revenue from retail sales and corporate contracts; restoring balance to company culture (ironically caused in this case by an attempt at cohesion); reducing stress on employees already overburdened by the effects of the pandemic on business practices, working conditions, safety, home/school/family situations; repairing damage to customer and investor relationships;  deploying a crisis communications team; and executing necessary counter communication campaign measures.

“The cost to value ratio of proactive prevention pales in comparison to reactive measures to the cancel culture,” said Ms. Graziano.

Denise Graziano is an expert in organizational communication and change. She is an authority on helping companies to create change, improve trust, relationships and communication inside their organization with employees and externally with clients, to increase revenue, retention and loyalty. She is CEO of Graziano Associates, a boutique marketing communications firm with a unique internal and external approach that helps companies to vitalize their workforce and build brand ambassadorship from within.

Using the tire manufacturer as the most recent example, there is room for improvement by both employer and employee, said Ms. Graziano. What could have been done differently that would have reduced the fallout that is still harming the company?

Three Lessons to be Learned: Perspective, Collaboration and Clear Communication of Policy

“Most companies are rightly re-evaluating or increasing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts now,” said Ms. Graziano. “However, in this case the company’s policy slide which emerged in the news was perceived by both some employees and customers as more exclusive than inclusive.”

Lesson: It is not about what you want to say, but what your audience hears.

Unless your message is reviewed from varying perspectives, you may not get the results intended. No doubt this miscalculation is what caused an employee to share the slide outside of the organization, which sparked this firestorm. That does not defend such actions, but it could explain it.

“Conditions for siloed thinking are a consequence of working virtually,” said Ms. Graziano. “While many companies have greatly improved their communication and collaboration skills during the pandemic, silos still exist. Regardless of whether the tire company has remote employees, in this case perhaps no one else reviewed the slides through the varied prisms of those reading the policy.”

Lesson: Collaborate across domains.

What is the employee’s responsibility in a situation where an action could damage the employer in some way?

 In The Economics of Leading in the Age of the Cancel Culture Denise Graziano addressed this latest business threat purely from the human capital and financial aspects. Here, she goes deeper into how HR professionals can help fortify their brands from within, and the role of employee responsibility to avoid damage.

“According to veteran labor and employment attorney Daniel Schwartz, partner at Day Pitney LLP, employees can be terminated for failing to do their jobs,” said Ms. Graziano. “For example, employees who walkout, and refuse to do their jobs because they don’t agree with a company policy could be fired. There is a fine line that employees can cross however, to cause them to be terminated for ‘cancel culture’ actions. With clear policies, companies can create guard rails for what is expected, what is not tolerated and what is unlawful behavior.” 

Lesson: Set and communicate clear company policies about employee behavior.

Ms. Graziano cited Mr. Schwartz, who said: “Laws vary by state, therefore company policy should be dictated by the most restrictive state laws if you have locations in multiple states. For example, in Connecticut an employee can attend a protest, make a political statement on social media, write an op-ed article as long as it is separate and apart from their work. They have a right to act as a private citizen. In other states however, similar actions could be grounds for termination.”

Related: Transforming Corporate Culture and Driving Performance in the New Workplace

The fine lines come when it might come during work hours, or if you’re wearing a company logo it could be an issue. An employee must make it known that they are stating their opinion as an individual private citizen, during a media interview, writing an editorial or posting in social media, said Mr. Schwartz. “A company in creating a code of conduct must say that employees may not make statements on behalf of the company unless they are authorized to do so,” he said. “Employers need to be careful; they don’t have a right to regulate the private activities of their employees outside of the workplace.”

In Talent is a Team Sport Ms. Graziano details how human resources holds the strategic vantage point to solve today’s complex workplace challenges by collaborating with multiple domains. Current events present the urgency to work with legal counsel to examine employee codes of conduct and company policies before issues arise.

Regarding work-related misconduct, employers can terminate them. Ms. Graziano said Mr. Schwartz offered this possible scenario: “An employee might refuse to work because they disagree with company policies,” he said. “The employer could  respond: you are entitled to your beliefs, but by refusing to work, you have crossed the line and it’s no longer public speech on a matter of public concern. It is actions affecting the workplace and your failure to appear for work; we can discipline anyone who refuses to come work without a valid reason.” (Ms. Graziano noted that this is not legal advice and that one should always consult with their legal counsel for specific matters.)

How to be Proactive vs. Reactive 

Virtually any organization could be vulnerable to cancel culture actions. Said Ms. Graziano: “Ask yourself these three questions, which are part of our firm’s deeper, data-based Cancel Culture Vulnerability Audit which we use to assess companies for potential blind spots.”

1. Do your employee surveys show disagreement about your returning to the workplace plans?

Individual stressors of family, school, health, age regarding if/when your offices reopen will be a new friction point. Silent disagreement can be damaging to companies by the way it impedes progress. Defiant disagreement that comes in the form of walkouts or perhaps leaking a company document. This not only damages productivity it damages your brand.

2. Have you have hired and onboarded new employees completely virtually in the last five months? Younger workers simply may not know any better. New hires that you have onboarded completely virtually, who do not have the benefit of learning “over the shoulder” of more seasoned employees could easily make assumptions about acceptable workplace behaviors.

3. Has it been more than three years since you reviewed your employee behavior policies?

“The really smart, forward thinking employers try to get in front of issues to examine whether their histories, policies and culture might lead to a problem and try to proactively take internal audits and examinations,” said Mr. Schwartz.

“As 2020 continues to show us, there is no playbook or historical reference for how to navigate business today,” said Ms. Graziano. “This year has given us both new opportunities and new blind spots. The key is to be able to discern both, seize new ground to serve clients where they are now, and to avoid current threats. In all cases your people are the key to success.”

In the age of the cancel culture, employers and employees both bear some responsibility. “Organizations that are strong in communication, culture, aligned in vision are less likely to have such risks from their own employees,” she said. “Does that make a company immune? Of course not. But the exposure is reduced. The costs of reputation management, winning back customers, culture building, retaining high performers are substantial and take far longer to repair than the time to cause the damage.”

“This is not about lightning rod issues,” said Ms. Graziano, “but taking proactive measures to fortify your brand from within and reduce the likelihood of becoming next week’s costly news story.”

Related: Creating a Company Culture to Boosts Creativity

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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