C-suites pump brakes on office activism

Executives and boards are rethinking their responses to geopolitical issues and losing patience with employees who are "eager to be the conscience of their companies," The Wall Street Journal reported April 21. 

In 2020, many CEOs spoke in solidarity with racial justice and immigration policy issues and even moved to foster internal discourse on prominent social topics. But recently — as employees grow increasingly vocal about the war in Gaza — bosses, fearing disruption, are changing their tunes. 

Take Google, for example. In the past, the company has been responsive to employees' concerns about certain policies. It opted not to renew a Pentagon contract in 2018, pledged not to make artificial intelligence technology for military weapons and adopted a set of AI "principles," according to the Journal

Yet, recently, Google fired 28 workers who were involved with sit-in protests regarding the company's cloud-computing contract with the Israeli government. Leadership said the protesters violated company policy by overtaking office spaces and disrupting the work environment. Chris Rackow, the company's vice president of global security, told employees the protesters' actions "made co-workers feel threatened," and CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that while an open culture is important, "we also need to be more focused in how we work, collaborate, discuss and even disagree."

"This is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts co-workers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform," Mr. Pichai said in an email to staff after the firings. "This is too important a moment as a company for us to be distracted."

Google is not the only company grappling with employees' demands regarding social responsibility. The New York Times, National Public Radio and Starbucks are all wrestling with internal dissent related to the war in Gaza, as are multiple health systems. New York City-based NYU Langone Health terminated the director of its Perlmutter Cancer Center after he reposted tweets on X (formerly known as Twitter) satirizing anti-Israel protests as supporters of Hamas. Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego and UC San Diego penned a letter distancing themselves from pediatric residents' call for a cease-fire in Gaza. 

In a statement shared with Becker's, the hospital said it "unequivocally denounces and condemns all violence against children" but noted that it is not a political entity. 

As conflict plays out among employees on Slack channels and email chains, employers aim to remain neutral, fearing ensnarement in a "culture war," according to the Journal. If an issue does not directly affect business, companies are increasingly avoidant of a strong partisan stance, executives and corporate advisers told the publication. 

And because private sector workers are not protected by the First Amendment's free speech guarantees, workplace activism leads both employees and employers into a gray area. 

Genevieve Lakier, PhD, a law professor at the University of Chicago, told the Journal, "There is still a lot of uncertainty about how much free expression by workers is consistent with the operations of the workplace." 

"None of this is settled," she said.

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