Reproductive rights have become a central workplace topic in the past two months, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling which overturned Roe vs Wade and removed the constitutional right to abortion. Company leaders have been weighing how to respond, whatever their own individual perspectives or opinions may be.
So how do leaders decide what to do next? And what does this mean for companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commitments?
Sarah Miller, Chief Executive of Principia, and James Pogue, Chief Executive Officer at diversity specialists JP Enterprises, answer the most common questions they are hearing from leaders.
Q – What does the overturning of the Roe vs Wade ruling have to do with my organization?
Whether it be as simple as the time many team members are spending discussing Roe v Wade or more complex in terms of what healthcare plan should be selected and whether ‘elective’ procedures ought to be covered, there is an impact to your business. Gaining clarity on what the impact will be inside your four walls requires the leadership courage to ask questions of a diverse set of persons in an inclusive environment and then listen. Further, it is important to appreciate that this affects a huge number of people, both women and men, and likely more than you think. For businesses and organizations to ignore that impact is irresponsible.
At Principia, we’ve started to interview leaders for our next Ethics Study and this issue is one that every leader in U.S. companies has mentioned as a high-priority issue and a current example of an ethical decision they have to make.
While only U.S. employees are directly affected, the potential implications are also being discussed around the world. In weighing up how to respond, leaders are having to navigate very different perspectives and expectations from different stakeholders, at the same time managing the broader ethical implications for their reputation externally and for the culture of their own organization.
Q – What options are business leaders weighing up when deciding how to respond?
A number of leaders are saying publicly that they understand this is a big issue, and they are exploring ways to support their employees or have made explicit commitments about how to do so already.
But many are particularly concerned that their leadership team and board don’t have the skills or confidence to have these difficult conversations in a business context, and yes, they’re worried about talking about it in public. The result – many are simply avoiding the issue.
Privately, leaders are clearly concerned about how to manage the fallout while also battling other issues including the economic downturn, the return to work, and the “Great Resignation”. There is also the pressure of ‘what’s next?’. With a pending election and increasing global tensions related to military conflict, food shortages and climate change, many leaders are trying to ascertain which to focus on in the board room.
For leaders, this is a high-wire act in balancing considerations about their reputation externally with internal tensions that are particularly pronounced given the divisive and politicized nature of this topic.
One thing we’ve heard is how important it is for leaders to avoid making assumptions about the perspectives their people hold. One leader in New York told me how, when the ruling was overturned, she had spoken openly about her disagreement with the decision to her team, many of whom were crying and upset by the change. She later discovered that two team members strongly supported the decision, and now feel isolated from their colleagues and from the organization.
Companies are already experiencing heightened levels of scrutiny, coupled with conflicting expectations around taking a stance on controversial social and political issues. Many companies are sticking to announcing their support for employees and identifying what HR policy changes need to be made to include reproductive healthcare considerations, but leaders will also need to consider the broader implications for their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly as evidence shows that the decision will disproportionately affect the most marginalized in society.
Q – What ethical implications does the ruling raise which leaders should be aware of?
We’re already seeing leaders grappling with multiple implications and demands, many of which are in tension with one another:
- Exercising their duty of care towards employees when it comes to direct implications for health and wellbeing, but also the need to create a safe, inclusive workplace environment.
- Respecting individual autonomy, rights, and freedoms, in balance with responsibilities to contribute to society and uphold human rights.
- Considering equality and fairness of decision-making, such as assessing whether the outcome of any decision might result in unfair or unequal treatment to one stakeholder group to the exclusion of another.
- Maintaining reputational integrity by acting consistently in line with the organization’s key values and principles.
Q – How does the ruling relate to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)?
Let’s begin with a few facts. Diversity is now and has always been more than what has been pushed to us in our social media feeds. Geography, Socioeconomics, Sexuality, Religion, Age, Politics, Race, Differing Abilities and Gender are the big boulders of diversity in our lives. We call them the Diversity, Inclusion and Bias (DIBs) Big 9 ™. The Roe v Wade debate, like many others, sits firmly in the bucket of intersectionality – meaning it impacts more than one component of diversity – and has significant implications for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Socioeconomics or class is a major consideration: the bottom line is that people with economic means are still able to access abortion care if that is what they desire. There are also obvious religious implications, and the issue risks driving deeper wedges between groups who have different perspectives.
For leaders, this underscores the need to balance their duty of care for individuals – through providing funding to access out-of-state medical care, for example, or supporting people to relocate – with the desire not to alienate sections of their workforce.
Q – What are the potential long-term implications for companies?
Leaders need to understand that this is not about their own hearts or minds. It is about recognising how their hearts and minds – their views – affect the decisions they make for their teams. They need to openly engage with different perspectives and make well informed, pressure tested and clear decisions. It is also critical that they be able to communicate them. These decisions ought to be in line with the organization’s values and commitments, demonstrated on their website and various publications in a way that is genuine, demonstrates consistency and integrity in everything they say and do.
People are watching to see if the actions of the company and leader align with what they espouse. When it does not, professionals old and new are disconnecting or even walking away from companies that are incongruent.
Companies are increasingly having to deal with ethically-charged decisions – where they work, who they work with, which social and political issues they speak out on – all while balancing rapidly shifting (and often competing) stakeholder expectations.
This issue offers an opportunity for organizations to pressure-test their ability to have conversations about these difficult topics and for leaders to make consistent and clear decisions about how to respond.
Q – So, what should leaders do in response to this ruling – and what should they avoid doing?
When having conversations, leaders should help teams engage in respectful ways without avoiding constructive challenge.
They should also be intentional about leveraging existing organizational values and principles to ensure consistency and reinforce norms, and identify a common narrative for leaders to publicly talk about the decisions they’ve made and why.
Most critically, leaders should use this as an opportunity to prepare for the next set of challenging ethical issues they will face. Organizations with strong principles and practice to guide ethical decisions have a much better foundation to engage with these sorts of dilemmas. This won’t be the last one – building the skills to do so now positions leaders to be ready.
Get better at talking about the impossible issue of the day. There will be more. If you are not practiced and confident, get help. It is a mistake to avoid the conversation and its implications for business policy, practice, and procedure. Instead, leaders should be engaging with their teams in conversations about impact to policy, practice and procedure and next steps. Organizations which feel ill-equipped to have these kinds of conversations could seek an expert facilitator to help with both this discussion and in building skills for future ethical decision-making.