The lines between work and life have blurred increasingly over recent years. AI-based learning suite Crescendo writes that “the days of checking your politics at the door [are gone], and today’s professionals want to work at companies that allow them to bring their whole selves to work—beliefs, politics, protests, and all”.
The World Economic Forum describes this blurring of boundaries as “the rise of the ‘belief-driven’ employee”, finding that 59% of employees are leaving their jobs in favour of something that better fits their values. Of course, as current events continue to evolve and the world changes at such a rapid rate, it can be challenging for organizations to stay on top of discourse and find ways to support their employees and their causes.
Addressing current events in the workplace is a difficult line to tread. On one hand, there’s the temptation to try to keep everything professional all the time in order to avoid any inter-employee tension from potentially difficult or controversial topics. On the other hand, employees and their work don’t exist within a vacuum. The things going on in the world inevitably seep into our work lives, whether we realize they do or not.
A leader's responsibility is to determine how they wish to lead through challenges and times of crisis. There’s certainly no single right way, but when it comes to current events in the workplace there are some best practices that leaders can follow.
If you decide to address current events in the workplace, the most important thing to consider is: What do you talk about and what don’t you talk about?
If you decide to do a blanket “address everything that may impact employees” policy, know that it may be a lot to cover. If we think about everything that’s happened in just the last month, listing them would take up most of this article.
So there needs to be a line, but what is it? The “obvious” no-nos such as pop culture, religion, and politics have a tendency to be wrapped up in every issue that might impact employees. Take COVID as an example, which undeniably has impacted everyone and likely has impacted your employees’ abilities to do their jobs effectively, either directly—through illness, loss of a loved one, etc.—or indirectly, through health anxiety, financial concerns, etc.
Even the pandemic could be considered a political issue, with sides forming and tensions running high around vaccinations and masks, so should we just avoid talking about it, even though it’s taken up a great deal of everyone’s energy for more than two years?
There’s no cut and dry answer—each issue needs to be examined on an individual basis, with considerations of who’s being impacted and how.
Employees don’t expect perfection—they want leaders who approach everything with empathy and are willing to try.
Crescendo writes that while “many leaders feel unsure about how to approach difficult news and current events, particularly those that polarize people or touch on sensitive subjects like political or religious beliefs, discrimination, and injustice”, the truth is that employees would rather their employers aim to be present rather than perfect.
Beyond the challenge of deciding what’s worth addressing with employees, leaders should be prepared to make a statement that a) acknowledges the incident, b) recognizes how it may impact employees, and c) offers support.
Offering support can include reminding employees to take advantage of their benefits—visit a registered counselor, get a massage, take a personal day, etc.—as well as providing information on additional resources.
In particular, your company culture will play a big role in how you address current events in the workplace. Organizations that emphasize the importance of community among employees will have ingrained systems in place to better support one another during challenging times.
Leaders should check in directly with employees if they either know or suspect that they may be struggling. Of course, the check-in shouldn’t pressure employees, but rather provide them with the opportunity to reach out should they so choose. These check-ins are only possible if you have leaders within your organization that know and care about their people.
Ultimately, each organization is likely to handle current events in the workplace differently. It comes down to company culture and values, and how comfortable your teams are with one another. At the end of the day, current events will play a role in most workplaces, no matter how they operate. Of course, there’s the exception for organizations in remote locations with no access to the outside world (think a lab in Antarctica studying penguins)—but we’ll assume since you’re reading this, that that’s not the case for you.