Whole Foods and American Airlines Face Workplace-Expression Challenges

Should Employees be Permitted to Display Political or Social-Justice Slogans at Work?      

1/12/22 – – As readers of this blog know, I believe the most effective crisis prevention includes awareness and analysis of other peoples’ problems. Kicking off the new year, companies should be paying close attention to the unfolding workplace-expression challenges faced by Whole Foods and American Airlines.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is supporting a Whole Foods employee who was prohibited from wearing a “Black Lives Matter” face mask at work. The NLRB is arguing that Whole Foods is violating the employee’s free-speech right to advocate for social change. And American Airlines is facing a Twitter storm after seeming to take the side of a passenger who was offended by a “Let’s Go Brandon” sticker attached to a pilot’s personal luggage.

At the heart of both kerfuffles is the right and wisdom of private corporations, institutions and organizations to keep political expression and social activism out of their workplaces.

Whole Foods understands that if “Black Lives Matter” masks are allowed, “Right to Life” masks are sure to follow. Both will turn off a significant percentage of customers. And American Airlines understands that if “Let’s Go Brandon” stickers are visible on pilot uniforms or luggage, “Build Back Better” stickers will appear. Both will turn off a significant percentage of passengers.

Given our nation’s 50/50 ideological split and the increasing political and social activism of business leaders, this conflict should come as no surprise.

You can understand how employees wishing to express themselves are confused when they’re prohibited from showing up at work with a slogan on their shirt while their CEOs are making speeches attacking political candidates. Even though private companies are not bound by First Amendment protections (“Congress shall make no law . . .”) judges are quick to rule against companies that are inconsistent in the implementation and enforcement of workplace-expression policies. That’s why I counsel clients to stay as far away as possible from politics, whether it be expressed on uniforms, social media platforms or in executive communications.

Unfortunately, marketers and communication consultants are misreading the consumer appeal of activism.

Yes, people do appreciate activism when it aligns with their beliefs. But they highly resent it when it doesn’t. A 2016 Weber Shandwick survey of American consumers found 40% of respondents more likely to purchase from a company when they agree with the CEO’s position, but 45% less likely to be buyers when they disagreed.

A 2018 Stanford Graduate School of Business study (“The Double-Edged Sword of CEO Activism”) confirmed this important reality:

The most surprising result of the survey is that, while Americans claim to change their purchasing behavior depending on their agreement with an activist CEO’s position, respondents are significantly more likely to remember products they stopped using or use less because of the position the CEO took than the products they started using or use more. Specifically, 35% of the public could think of a product or service they use less, while only 20% could think of a product they use more.

So, let’s hope Whole Foods is allowed to prohibit individual expression on employee masks (providing employees with approved masks free of charge would be a good idea) and American Airlines requires its pilots to keep uniforms and luggage free of all stickers. Going to school on these challenges, review your own workplace-expression policies. Consistency is the only equitable, enforceable way to go.

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