As a DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) consultant, I’ve sat in dozens of offices around the country observing everything in the culture that is said and done.
With most of my clients based in NY or California, the leaders I work with tend to be quite progressive, and, like many forward-thinkers, most of them avow they want to make sure their cultures are inclusive of, “all people.” Their commitment to this work is admirable and obvious.
But in turbulent political times, I’ve watched them try to find their footing and voice when it comes to where they — and their company — stand when it comes to Trump.
For instance, after we conduct assessments with those same leaders’ employees, they’re often surprised to learn just how many of their team members feel alienated due to their alignment with Trump.
Given the demographic breakdown of the election results in 2016 and the fact that tech and VC-backed companies remain overwhelmingly white and male, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
But it always does.
When most companies think about “inclusion,” and for whom these efforts are intended, a couple of things come to mind — namely, race, gender, and sexual orientation. But more and more, companies are beginning to understand that the parts of people’s identity that lead them to feel like they belong or don’t belong at a company go far beyond what the eye can see.
Things like religious beliefs, socioeconomic upbringing, where they went to school, and the most unspoken in the progressive-leaning tech and startup space — political views — are just as likely to affect people’s sense of belonging.
After they get over their initial shock, the question always comes up: do we really mean “inclusion for all?” Particularly when some folks’ beliefs may exclude or be biased against others’ identities?
And while this question is not easily answered, we have found a few guiding points to help you decide what those guardrails are for you and your organization.
Here’s how we think about it.
The first step is acknowledging that when we think about inclusion, we rarely mean everyone. And hey, guess what? That’s okay. You probably really don’t want rapists or embezzlers or Nazis in your organization, and I’m pretty sure no one is going to fault you for that.
But when we get into the grey line of our social and political values as a country right now, things get a little more nuanced. For instance, I’ve heard more than one leader say, “I’m fine with no Trump supporters. But what about Sarah?” Sarah voted for Trump because she’s a devout Catholic who is pro-life. Should she go?( She’s also a top performer who is genuinely kind to her co-workers and exemplifies all of the company values, btw)…
We’d all like to stand firm in our beliefs, and sometimes the easiest way to do that is to paint things in “black and white” — figuratively speaking. But when you break it down to the individuals who make up your organization, it gets a hell of a lot harder.
Once you’ve accepted that not everyone is going to “belong” on your team and you’ve realized that just “firing all Republicans,” might be a bit heavy-handed, the next step forward we’ve found to be helpful is to decide if you want to be values-neutral or values-directive.
In the social sciences, “values-neutrality” is the duty of sociologists to put aside one’s own values and remain impartial, without bias or judgment, when conducting sociological research.¹ The concept was coined by Max Weber, a late 19th-century sociologist. Of course, while it’s one’s duty, whether someone can really do this remains a point of debate.
Conversely, someone who is values-directive lets their own personal set of values guide their judgment of others, or in the case of research, their analysis of their findings.
In our view, if your culture is values-neutral, hypothetically-speaking, all socio-political views are seen as equal and valid, as long as they don’t explicitly go against the stated company values.
That means that if taking an organizational stance on a socio-political issue (say, for instance, abortion) means alienating any employees who might not share that perspective, the company doesn’t take a stance. They stay neutral.
This idea of neutrality can be great for expanding people’s perspectives and access to difference, but it can be truly alienating when the socio-political is personal (think, trans rights or Black Lives Matter) and an employee doesn’t feel supported by a company that stays silent on issues salient to their identity.
A culture that’s values-directive, on the other hand, takes a clear stance. The culture is driven, not only by the company values, but by the personal values of leadership and other culture drivers. In a values-directive culture, it’s clear to employees what socio-political stances are valued and the folks who support those stances are the ones who “belong.”
For instance, the company might be explicitly pro-immigration or take a public stance on LGBTQ rights. Or, they might staunchly align themselves with Trump and be pro-2nd Amendment. Either way, if you don’t align with the personal values of the dominant group, you probably won’t be happy at a values-directive organization. For those who do, though, it can be deeply fulfilling to work at a place that shares a similar moral compass, something many of the members of our emerging workforce say they are looking for.
Realistically, both choices will likely leave some people feeling not so great.
When there are clear expectations and standards set and made explicit by leadership and your employer brand, people can make informed choices about whether the company is the right fit for them.
Yes, you might lose some people, but you’ll definitely lose people if you say one thing, and then do another.
Regardless of what you choose, as Brené Brown says,
“Kind is clear and clear is kind.”