As the election looms, what business leaders need to do to support and engage employees

As we hurtle toward an election defined by hyper-partisanship and a number of factors underlining exactly how different this is from any elections past, experts agree and research affirms: It's time for corporations to step up, have a plan and make some changes in how they choose to engage with their employees during this crucial time.

Edelman's Cydney Roach hosted a discussion on how leaders should respond during this time, what the different scenarios at play are and how mental health and vulnerability play into the new role of the CEO. Here's what you need to know.

First, the numbers, presented by U.S. CEO Russell Dubner:

  • 70 percent of large company employees expect their leaders to respond if the election is uncertain or uncontested
  • Nearly 83 percent of those 18-24 share that expectation

And if corporations don't, the stakes are high:

  • 40 percent of people say they'll protest, online or in the workplace if the employer doesn't handle the topic
  • Nearly half of those 18-24 would protest

How is this moment different? A myriad of ways. Let's break this down simply. As Ben Ginsberg, election law expert puts it, the following forces are at play.

  1. The pandemic
  2. A polarized nation
  3. Racial unrest
  4. Economic upheaval
  5. The President's current rhetoric

The big picture: Make it about support and belonging, even if you support someone through disagreement, said Eskalera co-founder and former Goldman Sachs CHRO Dane Holmes. "Water will find its resting place. If you don't help it direct it to its resting place, it'll go where you don't want it," he said. Actions from CEOs have run the gamut, from Expensify's CEO sending an email to all his clients urging a vote for Biden, to Coinbase banning political discussion. But in this range, empathy becomes extremely important—and it becomes an organizational "superpower," as Stanford professor Jamil Zaki puts it. How to do it:

  • Make it inclusive of everyone in the organization: When Zaki's lab scanned the brands of conservatives and liberals, he found that the same source material created different brain neural responses. That means messaging must be non-partisan.

Scenario planning: In the case of a contested or prolonged election, executives must understand that employees are already overwhelmed cognitively, so create certainty with them by directing them to foundational values, said Holmes.

  • "2020 is a crisis layer cake," said Zaki. What will help is being honest and open about mental health and recognizing how stressful this moment is for employees.
  • Make meetings a few minutes longer so you can spend time checking in on people. Ask how they're feeling. "Make formal time for informal communities," said Zaki.
  • And in the case of a Trump victory leading to social unrest, it's time to think of a brand as a corporate citizen. One way for brands to respond: Give days off for people to engage civically, recommended Holmes.
  • Brands must have a war room set up separating fact vs. opinion and how the brand is responding to this.

How long will this go on? Ginsberg said we won't know the election winner, most likely, by midnight Election Night. So given different voting patterns, it's likelier to be clear by Friday after the election, especially as patterns emerge. Concessions aren't part of the law, but what is certain are the laws that say on January 20 at noon the president's term will expire.

  • Dubner said the big responsibility is to make people feel safe within their company.
  • Generate harmony in the company, if not calm, recommended Zaki. Remind people how similar they are, and that they're not that different after all.

We'll leave you with this: There can be a sense of moral helplessness at play when there is something going deeply wrong and we can't contribute. In Zaki’s words, "How can we give people a sense that they're able to be agents of their own morality and their own values?" It’s a valuable question to ask.”