Unenforceable Policies Regarding Political Expression at Work Were Destined to Draw Manufacturer into a Reputational Storm
8/20/2020 – – Believing that most corporate crises are predictable and preventable, I encourage companies to examine nine common sources of crises from which reputational challenges spring: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and Past. Red flags are surprisingly easy to identify and address when you perform such self-analysis through a crises-prevention lens.
I have to believe senior management at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company would have seen trouble rolling their way had they more carefully considered the enforcement challenges and unintended consequences of their policy — headlining the news this week — regarding political expression at work. According to a statement released yesterday by the company, Goodyear employees are required to “refrain from workplace expressions in support of political campaigning for any candidate or political party, as well as similar forms of advocacy that fall outside the scope of racial justice and equity issues.”
The first half of the policy is clear and enforceable. But implied in the second half of the policy is the approval of workplace political expression when it falls within the fuzzy scope of “racial justice and equity issues.”
Apparently recognizing the potential for confusion, someone at Goodyear created a PowerPoint slide (the company has not been forthcoming regarding the author or purpose of the slide) titled “Zero Tolerance” listing what is “Acceptable” and “Unacceptable” under the policy:
Black Lives Matter (BLM)
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride (LGBT)
Blue Lives Matter
All Lives Matter
Political Affiliation Slogans or Material
Viewing the content of this slide, you don’t need to be a soothsayer to spot red flags. You’d have to be from Mars to miss the opportunity for discrimination created by the policy’s lack of clarity (a doctoral dissertation could be written on what should or shouldn’t be considered an issue of “racial justice and equity”) and enforcement challenges (managers have the unrealistic responsibility to confront employees based on personal interpretations of what’s written on hats and sweatshirts).
Earlier this week, someone shown this slide (reportedly during a Goodyear HR training session in Topeka) anonymously posted a photo of it on Twitter. That caught the attention of Tweeter-in-Chief Donald J. Trump, who responded:
Don’t buy GOODYEAR TIRES – They announced a BAN ON MAGA HATS. Get better tires for far less! (This is what the Radical Left Democrats do. Two can play the game, and we have to start playing now!)
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany added: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘Blue Lives Matter’ is an equity issue. There have been police officers across this country that have been targeted because they wear the badge . . . Goodyear needs to come out to clarify their policy.”
What a mess.
So far, the company’s response has not addressed the accuracy of the slide’s content. Are Blue Lives Matter t-shirts banned and Black Lives Matter t-shirts welcomed? Can you wear an Unborn Lives Matter or Atheist Lives Matter hat to work? It’s still not clear. As you would expect, there’s been impassioned support for and pushback against the President’s boycott call. In today’s toxic political environment, this is the last thing Goodyear needed. After the Presidential tweet, the company’s stock quickly lost as much as six percent of its value. And according to Yahoo Finance:
Goodyear’s second quarter sales plunged 41% to $2.1 billion as auto manufacturers shut plants down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tire unit volumes crashed 45% from the prior year. The company has lost $1.3 billion through the first six months of the year.
This self-inflicted reputational storm didn’t have to happen. It’s unimaginable that the company’s human resources professionals believed that managers — no matter how well trained — at 47 Goodyear manufacturing facilities in 21 countries and retail service centers across the United States could administer this policy without discrimination and protests from both ends of the political spectrum.
The company’s policy should prohibit workplace expressions of advocacy for any issue or organization — other than Goodyear. Consumers don’t want to read political messages on the uniform of the mechanic balancing tires at the Goodyear service center. And no worker on the plant floor wants to be asked (pressured) why they are not wearing a shirt with a particular slogan across the chest.
There are alternative avenues for Goodyear employees to address inclusion and diversity. For example, listed on the company’s website are seven “Employee Resource Groups” that the company describes as, “contributors in attracting, connecting, motivating, and retaining talent.” These include: the Asia India Middle East Network, Goodyear Black Network, Goodyear Pride Network, Goodyear Veterans Association, Goodyear Women’s Network, Hispanic/Latinx, and Next Generation Leaders.
Watching how this all works out should be interesting. Goodyear’s political expression policy is unsustainable. President Trump’s call for a boycott of an American company is off-message heading into the election. But while you’re watching, bring your senior managers together to examine your own workplace policies. Are they clear and enforceable? Do they foster a respectful, efficient work environment or create confrontation? Just like checking the air pressure in your tires, reviewing your policies through a crisis-prevention lens will help avoid a blowout down the road.
A quick personal note:
My grandfather, James Tennyson, was an award-winning advertising copywriter/creative director in the golden age of radio. For a radio ad introducing Firestone tubeless tires, he coined the phrase “blowout,” replacing the common phrase at the time, “high-speed flat.” To build drama, listeners heard the screech of a braking car’s tires leading to an explosion and the announcer’s dramatic voice saying, BLOWOUT! Then came the good news that Firestone tubeless tires were far less susceptible to failure at highway speeds. Hey, it may not have been The Charge of the Light Brigade, but as grandpa would say, it paid the bills!