As we have seen countless times during these COVID-stricken months, employees are working on a short fuse. Isolation, stress and a galvanized political landscape have combined to create an environment where casual comments on social media explode into wars of words, workplace rules spawn walkouts, and long-simmering resentments about past management practices have suddenly morphed into legal action. As if overnight, the same individuals an organization depends on for its future existence have become lethal threats to its very survival.
At the root of many of these situations that seem to emerge out of nowhere is an organizational policy — a description of guidelines and rules, typically overseen by human resources, telling employees how to behave on the job and, often, how to behave off the job as well. When policies are well-written, they help create a workplace where expectations for employee performance are standardized and consequences for flouting those standards are clear-cut. But even the best written policies are ineffective if they are not consistently enforced and employees are unaware of their existence. Even worse is the policy that is never enacted for a critical component of employee performance.
Grocery giant Whole Foods is perhaps the latest high-profile example of what happens when policies are left adrift. In July, the company learned it would be facing a class-action suit brought by 14 employees in four states who claimed they were punished for wearing Black Lives Matter masks, clothing and pins on the job, but not for wearing all manner of other “creative clothing” that violated the company’s dress code. Employees alleged Whole Foods failed to enforce its dress code until they began to wear items with the BLM message. The company countered by saying the employees were disciplined for other infractions, including not working assigned shifts. Claims have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Enforcement of face mask policies is currently a flashpoint for many employers — especially those in the retail space — but they are not the only policies causing reputational and operational problems for organizations. In recent months, we have seen a significant uptick in the number of organizations whose past and current employees are leveling charges of harassment, hostile work environments and discrimination against management and even boards of trustees and directors. Some of these cases have garnered front-page headlines and resulted in leadership departures, board realignments and outside investigations to get to the bottom of what appears, from the outside, to be failures to set clear policies and enforce them.
For a glimpse at one of the more complicated examples involving apparent disregard for corporate policies of several types, consider the latest chapter in the case of McDonald’s Corp. Former CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was dismissed last fall amid allegations of misconduct, has resurfaced as part of a new investigation involving allegations that he lied to the board about the issues that led to his departure. The new investigation also involves complaints from employees about various HR-related matters, including the company’s decision to revise performance reviews that limited opportunities for staff to voice concerns about workplace issues.
Having thought-out policies in place, making sure employees are aware of them and enforcing them without exception are some of the most powerful weapons an organization can have if or when disputes with employees threaten to become high-profile reputation risks. In our experience, clients who can say they have a clear-cut policy in place for certain issues — and that it is rigorously and evenly enforced — have strong ground on which to stand in the court of public opinion. Reaching that goal, however, takes solid, sustained work. Here are some suggestions for making sound policy management part of your crisis prevention program: