CEOs are human beings and have their own political beliefs, but they also oversee employees whose politics can vary widely and differ greatly from their own. Emotions have run particularly high throughout the US presidential campaign that concluded in last Tuesday’s election, and we are now hearing from the companies we work with that many of their employees were stunned by Donald Trump’s victory and have had extreme emotional reactions to it. This Chicago Tribune feature on how local employers have been handling the aftermath of the election gives an indication of what leaders are dealing with:
Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the law firm’s Chicago-based workplace consulting arm, said some Clinton supporters were calling company employee assistance programs and “reporting depressing thoughts or even sinking feelings of doom” after nights spent in a “Facebook-fueled sadness spiral.” One marketing firm, he said, reported that employees were experiencing stress reactions such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath and sweaty palms.
On the victorious side, some Trump supporters were celebrating, Weiss said. He described a cargo hauler based south of Chicago that reported “high-fives and cheers as well as some over-the-top gloating,” including terms like “losers.”
Given these extreme reactions, many CEOs are now deciding how to communicate with their workforces about the employees are experiencing. But before any communications are sent, CEOs need to realize that what they say either has the opportunity to refocus their workforce and move them forward or to alienate their workforces and create a productivity drag.
The past few days have given us a couple of high-profile examples to learn from. GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney attracted some controversy with an email to all employees on Wednesday denouncing some of the Trump campaign’s rhetoric and seemingly urging employees who agreed with it to resign. As Ross Kelly explains at Chief Executive, that email prompted some backlash:
Many customers interpreted Maloney’s letter as a call for anyone who voted for Trump to resign and it wasn’t long before the hashtag #boycottgrubhub began trending on Twitter. …
Maloney issued a follow-up statement last night on GrubHub’s website saying he wasn’t calling on all Trump supporters to resign. “I would never make such a demand,” he said. “To the contrary, the message of the email is that we do not tolerate discriminatory activity or hateful commentary in the workplace, and that we will stand up for our employees.” GrubHub shares had closed down 4.1% on Thursday.
Another CEO’s communiqué in response to the election has received widespread praise. Fortune columnist Geoff Colvin applauds the email Apple CEO Tim Cook sent to all his US employees the day after the election, which he calls “an instructive example for all leaders”:
—He framed employees’ differing views of the candidates as an example of Apple’s diversity and inclusiveness: “We have a very diverse team of employees, including supporters of each of the candidates,” he wrote. That framing was effective because it was authentic. Cook has built a record of defending inclusiveness, for example publicly criticizing proposed laws in Arkansas and Indiana last year that some believe would have legalized discrimination against LGBT citizens. “Apple is open for everyone,” he has said. “We welcome everyone.”
—He reminded employees that they all work together for a noble purpose:“Our products connect people everywhere,” he wrote, “and they provide the tools for our customers to do great things to improve their lives and the world at large.” Too many business leaders miss this opportunity—explaining how the company makes the world a better place. The best leaders do it relentlessly. …
—In the trauma and stress of the election, he identified an opportunity for employees to help one another. This was brilliant, done in a single sentence near the end of the note: “I’ve always looked at Apple as one big family and I encourage you to reach out to your co-workers if they are feeling anxious.” Cook is turning powerfully felt political opinions from fuel for anger into an opportunity for empathy and human connection.
Before the CEO hits “send” on that company-wide email, there are a couple of pieces of advice they should hear from their HR executive. Before sending out that communication, a CEO should ask themselves the following questions:
- Who is going to be surprised by the message?
- Who is likely to have a negative reaction to this message? And is that OK or not?
- If I put myself in the shoes of an employee that voted differently than I did, what would my reaction be?
The tensions coming out of this election are just one example of the inherent uncertainty businesses are facing in today’s environment. For more advice on how to lead through this uncertainty, please take a look at our most recent executive guidance, which looks ahead to 2017.