Takeaways: May 2021

20 May, 2021



May 2021

NSFW? It’s tempting these days to engage in political arguments discussions in the workplace. The whole realm of politics has taken on a new urgency in recent years, and people want to express their opinions. But as everyone knows (remember Thanksgiving dinner?), such exchanges are flirtations with disaster. So what is a manager to do, especially at a time when business leaders and the companies they run are expected to take positions on controversial issues? Political discussions, as many managers feel, can be a time-consuming distraction. Writing on the Know Your Team blog, Claire Lew offers a few useful observations. For “an organization whose purpose is to try to get work done and make progress toward an outcome,” Lew writes, political discussions “can feel perilously distracting.” That’s why some managers now forbid employees to talk about politics. But that’s risky, too. Rarely, Lew writes, “does the shutting down of energy result in the felt, relieving experience of a release of energy. In fact, the opposite. Stifled feels, well, stifled.” Employees have “to avoid sharing a part of themselves and their lives.” That’s a burden in itself. Also, refusing to consider the political is to ignore the context in which we relate to the market, to competitors, customers, partners and, yes, employees. Managers might begin to ask themselves, “In what way does my team aspire to better the world? To what degree is that world influenced by politics?” Once they start thinking in those terms, they can open up their offices to thoughtful and considerate conversations about politics, though this won’t necessarily be easy. And here’s a sentence that might be worth memorizing: “I disagree but respect you and your opinion.”

ALL TALK? All the surveys seem to show that consumers want to purchase goods and services from companies that stand for something more than turning a tidy profit. By one study, almost 80% say they “are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness or environmental impact.” Another — this from IBM — finds that almost 60% “are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. … Over 70% would pay a premium of 35%, on average, for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.”

Moreover, young professionals routinely say they want to work only for companies with whose higher social purposes they agree. At least they said so before the pandemic and an already tough job market. But how many of us really act on the noble sentiments we tell pollsters we care so deeply about? Reflecting on his own household’s habits, Maarten Albarda, founder of Flock Associates, thinks a lot of this is just talk. The Albarda household is on-trend, he writes on Ragan’s PR Daily. “We’re driving electric now, we get our environmentally sustainable washer and dishwasher pods from Dropps (never mind that they are home-delivered from Illinois), and we complain to Walmart when its grocery delivery service wraps each item in a separate plastic bag.” Even then, our actual practices as consumers haven’t changed much at all. “If we are honest,” he writes, “we must conclude that what we say and how we live are two very different things (as they always are). Even if we are really concerned about the environment, we still love the convenience of the Amazon, FedEx and UPS truck fleet delivering our meals in a box, our (plastic) matcha pods or razor blades.” While he does not doubt that brands “benefit from the marketing stories around socially conscious issues,” Albarda isn’t convinced that consumers “are really prepared to ‘pay more, and even change their buying habits’ if brands are not part of this trend. Consumers are lazy creatures of habit. We like the idea of social consciousness, but we are not always prepared to accommodate to the realities of it.” (We’ll report any studies that settle the question.)

BONANZA: “Environmental, social, and governance lobbying has more than doubled in the past year, as newly-in-charge Democrats push for companies to be more transparent and accountable on issues such as climate change, diversity efforts, and political activities,” Bloomberg Law reports, after its analysis of quarterly lobbying reports submitted to Congress. It’s a “lobbying bonanza,” apparently. More than 40 companies have lobbied federal officials on these matters, though that is probably a low estimate. That’s because reporting on these special issues is voluntary, as Bloomberg Law acknowledges. While companies are speaking out on social, political and environmental issues with increasing frequency, there are “few rules dictating what they have to tell investors about their own performance.” Only about 20 companies reported that they had lobbied on such matters in the first quarter of 2020, a figure that doubled in the comparable period in 2021, which ended March 31. We’ll find out soon enough how long the reporting remains voluntary, “as the Biden administration and Congress decide what information investors should have to evaluate ESG risks and investment opportunities.”

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