Surekha Ragavan
Nov 14, 2019

How should brands deal with employee activism outside the workplace?

At a time of polarising politics, we ask PR pros how organisations should balance employee behavior and brand values.

Should employees be 'punished' for joining protests? (Getty Images)
Should employees be 'punished' for joining protests? (Getty Images)

Whether it’s capitalism, gender or racial discrimination, environmental pollution, or authoritarianism, there’s no doubt that people in Asia are more openly discussing large, systemic, and often damaging structures.

In Hong Kong, for instance, passion and emotions are riding high as violence between protestors and police escalates. And in any case, increased passion and purpose outside the workplace is not uncommon among employees.

How, then, do organisations manage their communications around employee behaviour?

Clare Parsons, global chair of PROI Worldwide, tells PRWeek Asia that it entirely depends on the issue that employees are supporting.

"There are loads of places around the world where individuals feel passionate about something to take activism forward. But businesses have to think how they secure the ability for the [employees] who are and are not involved in activism to still to be able to progress in a fair way and equitable way," she says.

In the case of Hong Kong, she admits that the situation is more volatile, and therefore the lines are more blurred. "The people who are standing on the streets will be having different views. Just because they're all are together doesn't actually make them a homogenous group. And so, businesses will be trying to work out individual causes for concern," she said.

"The job is to work out what the many frustrations are. I think it must be very difficult when you see some organisations that appear to have had to alter their senior management teams as a result."

Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific, for example, warned staff to avoid participating in protests or face disciplinary action that could include termination of employment. And in this case, the airline was denounced for bowing to pressure from Beijing.

Philippe Healey, head of corporate advisory and strategic communications, Greater China for Hill+Knowlton Strategies, tells PRWeek Asia that companies should consider whether there is a legitimate business reason for imposing limitations, such as if an employee’s conduct could interfere with his or her work activities, disrupt the workplace, damage the company’s reputation, or affect business relationships.

"Generally speaking, companies have fairly wide discretion when determining the extent to which they regulate the expression of political views by their employees, both internally and externally. However, employers need to take a careful approach to regulating such views—particularly outside the workplace—or they could risk being exposed to accusations revolving around discrimination, privacy issues, and more," he says.

These cases must also be tackled with a local lens and take into account cultural sensitivities, he adds. "Companies increasingly need to manage a delicate balancing act where they are always respectful of the local views in different markets. They should be mindful that their responses to certain crises may well be followed as closely in their home markets as by their audiences elsewhere," he says.

"It is often necessary to have very nuanced, carefully balanced messaging—and in some cases recognise that they may simply have to weather a certain amount of criticism from different sides before their crisis finally subsides.

"Generally, it is advisable to limit the imposition of disciplinary measures to cases where there is a clear violation of corporate policies that adversely affected the company and its business in some way."

The key, as well, is to ensure that employers clearly define their policies and that employees are made aware of them. "Many brands still don’t have a clear definition of their policies regarding internal and external political discourse by their employees," says Healey.

"In the current global environment, however, this issue is increasingly on C-suite agendas, and it is likely that corporate policies towards the expression of political views will become much more clearly articulated in the near future. How to implement these policies and respond to situations should be considered as part of any crisis training preparedness."

Ray Rudowski, managing director of Epic Communications, concurs. "Developing any internal policy is a conversation between management and its employees to ensure there's consensus and everyone understands where the guard rails are," he says.

"It's important to review and if necessary, update those policies to align with the company's current business goals, stakeholder expectations and current social norms. What may have been acceptable to post privately in the past may no longer be appropriate due to a variety of factors.

"A big factor in managing this type of issue stems from the substance or content of the remarks made, the political and social sensitivities in the company's current operating environment and the amount of stakeholder goodwill the company currently enjoys".

PROI’s Parsons says that while conversations with HR teams are important, employees could be handled as individual cases. "It isn’t a one-policy-fits-all. But I do think HR teams on individual contracts with an employee will be revised as a consequence of this, because we will be better able to understand the consequences of this," she says.

Social media also makes matters grey, as employees might have personal accounts while still being associated with the companies they work for. Parsons said that back in the day when Twitter was a new platform, most people would have two separate accounts—for personal use and business. But these days, that’s rarely the case as individuals are reminded—often on social media—to become ‘authentic individuals’.

"The version of ourselves we bring to work has changed. We are the same person, whether at home or in the office; we are encouraged to be authentic individuals and to have a freedom of behavior," she says.

But if social media is also a tool where users play ball with each other and create a lot of noise, how do brands make decisions amid the misinformation? BlessAnn Luah, strategic communications director at Huntington Communications in Singapore, tells PRWeek Asia that separating fact from opinion is vital.

She says: "Being able to distinguish facts from opinion is a really huge challenge. And I think that journalism has a huge role in that."

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