There was a time when workplace conversations about politics were considered taboo.     

But the prevalence of social media, where our opinions are expressed openly and often without consequences, means those days are long gone.

Many employees frequently share their thoughts, opinions, and feelings about a whole range of issues online, and they often want their employer to speak out on issues that affect their lives.

The KPMG Peat Marwick / Stanley R. Klion Forum, held last October at Columbia Business School, examined the challenges of discussing political issues — for both employees and company leadership. 

“Workers had to show so much of themselves while working from home throughout the pandemic that they started to expect the same of their employer,” said panelist Miriam Warren, Yelp’s chief diversity officer, during the event.

Warren, along with Emma Goldberg, a writer at The New York Times, and Andrea Hagelgans, managing partner of social issues engagement at Edelman, discussed the rise of politics in the workplace during a time of social change with moderator Professor Todd Jick, the Reuben Mark Faculty Director of Organizational Character and Leadership at the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.

To some CEOs, speaking out may be easier said than done. But saying nothing may only make it harder, including when it comes to retaining employees.

“If they don’t feel their employer is aligning with them politically or socially or at the very basic level of what benefits they’ll provide, then they have the opportunity to switch because there are a lot of openings,” said Goldberg, who covers the future of work and workplace issues on her New York Times beat.

But how should a company authentically respond to a political issue in the first place?

“You don’t want companies to sort of fake it, to be sort of performative,” cautioned Jick. Hagelgans added that a company better know its track record on the subject at hand.

 “If you’re a company that wants to speak out during Women’s History Month, you better know what your pay equity issues are internally first, because, trust me, Twitter will discover it for you if you don’t know already,” warned Hagelgans.

Of course, companies have been criticized for slow response times. Nonetheless, Hagelgans cautioned against knee-jerk reactions. She recommends creating committees to interpret and make decisions about certain issues.

“These issues are emotionally charged. Really think through the data around them, and don’t make the assumption that we shouldn’t speak out on this because we’re going to get killed in the media or vice versa,” she said.

With reporting from Eric Butterman.