Dialogue Project Explores How Companies Can Navigate Polarizing Stakeholder Conversations

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The Civility Call

The Civility Call provides a vital forum for senior HR and communications leaders to share best practices on managing workplace tensions during polarized times. Convened in partnership with SHRM and the Page Society, these monthly discussions provide expert insights and best practices from participants organizations. Each month, executives engage in candid dialogue after expert-led discussions on pressing topics like navigating political discourse, customer relationships across divides, and supporting employee wellbeing. This open sharing of strategies and experiences is critical, as businesses face escalating civility risks that can disrupt operations and damage reputations amid the intensifying 2024 election cycle.

As the nation becomes increasingly anxious heading into the 2024 election season, companies are confronting new challenges in how to guide employees’ interactions with external stakeholders like customers, vendors and business partners. Controversial social and political topics can unexpectedly spark tense exchanges that put a company’s reputation and culture at risk.

To examine this critical issue, the Dialogue Project at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business recently hosted its second monthly “Civility Call,” in partnership with SHRM, the world’s leading association of human resource executives, and the Page Society, the world’s leading association of chief communications officers.  The call convened nearly 100 senior HR, communications and marketing leaders virtually for a discussion moderated by Dialogue Project founder Bob Feldman.

Providing a sobering backdrop, Dr. Alex Alonso, chief data and insights officer at SHRM, shared new research revealing workplace incivility in the U.S. has more than doubled over the past year as social tensions have escalated. On average, Americans now experience over two acts of incivility per day, with well over half occurring in the workplace during debates on polarizing topics like politics and religion.

According to the SHRM data, the impacts on employee well-being, organizational trust and firm performance are severe. Nearly two-thirds of workers say their company cannot properly handle today’s level of workplace incivility.

Navigating the Civil-Uncivil Tightrope

To explore strategies for maintaining a civil workplace culture while still allowing productive dialogue, the call featured two guest experts: Linda Rutherford, chief administration officer at Southwest Airlines, and Kelli Parsons, global CEO of Hill+Knowlton and current Page Society chair.

Rutherford explained that at Southwest, whose mission centers on safety, friendly service and inclusivity, the emphasis is on ensuring difficult external conversations don’t cross into incivility and alienate employees or customers. The airline provides civility guidance and de-escalation training, especially around elections, to help frontline staff pivot politicized exchanges in a constructive direction.

She noted the importance of leadership modeling by having healthy discussions that seek to understand different perspectives, not shut them down. “We teach belonging, civility and kindness aligned with our values,” said Rutherford. “When engaging, it should be to learn something, not create an adversarial relationship.”

Parsons shared examples of comprehensive frameworks some companies use to educate employees on appropriate, principled responses to external stakeholders around polarizing social issues. “There’s a balance between being willing to listen with humility to different viewpoints, while still asserting what actions we can and cannot take aligned with company values,” she said.

Reputational Risks Require Clear Guardrails

A particularly thorny challenge is how companies should respond when employees voice personal views related to their workplace on social media, even when not officially representing the company. Without clear guidance, such statements can quickly create a viral backlash.

Rutherford described the detailed social media policy Southwest uses to discourage inappropriate posts through training and employee education, not punishment. Parsons, however, recounted an experience where an employee’s egregious violation ultimately required termination to contain a rapid reputational threat.

Towards a Productive Way Forward

Looking ahead, Rutherford and Parsons offered perspectives on the role businesses should play in strengthening civic norms and democratic institutions at a time of deepening national polarization.

“The first priority is operating an ethical, trustworthy business that keeps employees secure and customers served reliably,” said Rutherford. “From there, companies should engage society consistently with their values, but extending much further carries risks.”

Parsons highlighted the added complexities multinationals face, requiring awareness that definitions of democracy vary across regions even as companies uphold ethics and local laws everywhere.

The productive dialogue continued with observations from HR, communications and marketing leaders across industries like healthcare, banking, and industrial manufacturing. The discussion reflected the level of concern companies have in preparing for more external civility tests as the 2024 election dynamics intensify.