Yes, Social Justice Matters. But Let’s Run The Payroll First.

We just finished a series of conversations with senior HR leaders about the topic of social justice. And the consensus is yes, we need to give people a safe place to discuss these issues at work. But let’s not let it get out of hand.

As many of you may have read, last week a third of Basecamp’s employees quit after the CEO banned talking about politics at work. As Google and other have found, it’s very tricky creating an inclusive, open, sharing culture in a business.

Our HR leaders had some interesting perspectives. Yes, it’s important to give people a safe place to discuss what’s on their minds, but let’s not forget the company code of conduct. It’s not ok to harass or belittle others, insult people because of their positions, or cut people off when they’re talking.

And what seems like a relevant and critical social issue to you may seem minor or irrelevant to others.

One of the CHROs told us (large real estate company) that their employees were tired of listening to HR talk about diversity and inclusion issues and just wanted them to focus on the basics. Why aren’t we getting our bonuses on time and what’s up with the company’s performance management process?

And this gets to my point. No matter how inclusive, responsible, or “woke” your company may be, remember that activism does not replace or supersede the real mission of the organization – which is to serve customers, take care of employees, and hopefully make a profit.

And this means that respect, listening, and a culture of belonging must take priority. And these core values must be maintained, regardless of the social or political issues at stake.

We are about to enter a heated world of debate: Should we mandate vaccination? How will we respond to #blacklives matter, global climate change, and sustainability? How much flexibility should we give to workers as the economy picks up speed? And, god forbid, what position if any should we take on citizenship, politics, voting rights, and other contentious issues?

One of our clients has actually created a series of Social Justice Frameworks, enabling employees to join interest groups to discuss. And another does this at a country level, enabling employees to localize their issues and causes. But in every case we discussed, the focus on these broad topics is always done in context.

As the CHROs told us today, the bottom line is maintaining our company’s operations come first, and that means paying the bills, running the payroll, and making sure all our customers are happy. Yes, companies themselves are societies, and employees in the company are in a sense citizens of the organization. But as we listen to them and try to address their issues and social causes, let’s not go too far.

I’ve studied the issue of Trust for years now, and it remains the most important value in business. Trust is made up of three simple things: competence, ethics, and listening. First, are we competent at what we do, and are we making customers and employees happy? Second, are we ethical and honest in our operations and do we treat everyone fairly? And third are we listening and always open to advice and feedback?

If we do these three things, social justice can be a good conversation. But in the meantime, let’s make sure the payroll is run on time.

Additional Resources On This Topic

Elevating Equity: The most popular program in the Josh Bersin Academy

Elevating Equity Research: Our groundbreaking study on inclusion, diversity and equity.

Citizenship at Work: a framework for social issues in the workplace.

Have We Failed Black America? dealing with racial justice in business.