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Translating Trump

To Engage or Not Engage? And How to do it Effectively

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President Trump is keeping his campaign promise to disrupt business as usual in Washington. If enacted, his policy changes involving health care, trade and immigration reform will have far-reaching effects on companies and workers. While many companies make a conscious decision to stay above the fray and not comment on political issues publicly, recent actions like Trump’s executive order on immigration have left many companies thinking more about when, if and how to address these issues internally.

Making this determination starts with thinking through your company’s answers to a series of questions:

  • Does this impact our employees directly and imminently? If you are a global company or in an industry that depends on foreign talent, such as technology or health care, you probably have a sizeable contingent of employees in the U.S. on working visas. These employees are likely worried and distracted; they may have immediate concerns about their (and their families’) ability to continue living and working in the U.S. As an employer, you may also have questions about business continuity and options, such as relocation. Bottom line: if the day’s headlines have a direct and seemingly imminent impact on your workforce, you should address these issues by gathering and sharing information on a timely basis.
  • Does our company take political stances? Does your company (or its leadership) have a history of taking stands on political matters that affect your business, such as Howard Schultz from Starbucks, or do you take a neutral stance on issues? If you regularly have a regular voice on political issues, it makes sense to follow your normal practice by responding to news events and sharing your position. In this case, it’s equally important to share your views internally with your employees before being shared with the media. If your company normally stays silent on political issues, you may still engage with employees by maintaining a neutral, non-partisan tone and responding with information and updates that are in the best interest of your employees and your business.
  • Does this policy conflict with our company’s values? Take a moment to reflect on your company’s values. Does this new action run counter to your corporate beliefs? Even if it doesn’t directly affect your business operations or employees, you may still use the opportunity to reinforce your values to employees without referencing the specific law or policy — your employees will make that connection themselves!
  • What happens if we stay silent?Media are highlighting brands and industries that do respond to comments about front-and-center issues, as this Fortune article did with Trump’s travel ban. And they are also commenting critically on canned or ambiguous responses, as in this evaluation of tech company responses. Your most important stakeholders — your employees — likely expect more from you than in the past. Employees may interpret a company’s silence as agreement with the policy.

Once you’ve answered these questions, it is helpful to keep the following in mind, as you form your responses based on what employees expect from you:

  • Information: Employees who have questions about their visa status or are worried about their health care coverage simply want facts and resources that will help them understand their situations and options. They want this information as close to real-time as possible. Make sure you have a system in place to collect and distribute relevant updates to your employees, and that your legal and HR teams are available to answer employee questions.
  • Clarification: Just as they take pride in the values your company stands for, many employees want to know where your company stands on the issues that dominate the headlines. Without being personal or partisan, you can offer employees the company’s point of view on how a new policy or law conflicts or connects with your company’s mission, vision or values.
  • Reinforcement: Provide a measure of stability during otherwise uncertain times by reinforcing the foundational tenets that ground your organization. Reassure employees that your company actively stands by its values, and use communications to shine an ever-brighter spotlight on efforts that support them, such as corporate social responsibility, and diversity and inclusion.
  • Guidance: Even if your employees do not expect you to take a public stand on an issue, they do have opinions and may want to share them. If you don’t already have a clear policy for employees’ commenting on behalf of the company or participating in external activities, such as fundraising, now is the time to create a clear and concise policy. Help employees understand your social media policy and how they may voice their personal opinions publicly, without being representative of your company.
  • Leadership: With the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer showing CEO trust at an all-time low, it has never been more important for leaders to engage with employees in a way that reinforces trust and engagement. This starts with listening to employee concerns and needs, and continues with open, authentic dialogue on those topics.

Much is changing about the way business is conducted in Washington, but one thing remains unchanged — your employees have been and always will be your greatest asset as a company. Transparent, timely and genuine dialogue is an investment worth making.

Dave Watson is a vice president with Employee Engagement in Atlanta.

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