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REWARDING READS |

Why the CEO Needs to Own Company Culture


“Rewarding Reads” is a space for articles and personal essays meant to be thought-provoking and informative for human resources professionals, from sharing the “human” perspectives on workplace issues to book reviews of business titles we find inspiring. Have an essay or blog post to share? Contact us at workspan@worldatwork.org.

In 2020 and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we bore witness to unparalleled outrage, intense advocacy and even first-time recognition of inequality by friends, family, politicians, communities, institutions and colleagues. We also saw people — and companies — take a stand in ways they might not have previously.

Now, as the country begins to go back to normal post-pandemic, the question on many peoples’ minds is the same: what happens now? Will companies continue to advocate for social justice, equity or politics? Or was it all lip service?

As employees ask themselves these questions, it’s time for CEOs to look inward as well and truthfully ask: am I virtue-signaling and relying on HR to tackle these issues? Or am I stepping up and taking ownership of our response?

From a macro view, it’s the CEO’s primary job to champion an environment where all points of view are welcomed. On the flip side of the coin, leaders need to align cultural values with corporate and employee advocacy — sometimes requiring them to take a position that is not universally accepted. This was particularly true in 2020 as the pandemic became highly politicized and our presidential election deeply polarized.

While it’s easier for CEOs to rationalize doing nothing by citing a sense of obligation to being a neutral party, this was a time when that simply was not realistic, empathetic or strategic.

As the nation reopens in COVID’s wake, some companies are experiencing unprecedented voluntary turnover. And while corporate social activism perhaps wasn’t the only reason for making a change, people are most definitely rethinking the connection between their careers and their values. People who feel their employer failed to take a stance might leave for a company with a louder voice, while employees who disagree with a stance a company takes are also at a high risk for turnover.

So, isn’t this really an HR issue? Shouldn’t the CEO delegate all things in the “employee activism” category to the head of human resources? Is it really the CEO’s responsibility to take the lead?

The answer is a resounding no. As a leader, it’s the CEO who needs to define and support an open culture that values diverse ideas and a wide range of thinking. A culture where employees know that their opinion — when expressed appropriately in the workplace — has significance, and a culture where silence is unacceptable.

Of course, HR does have a substantial role in supporting cultural changes. Putting programs in place to advance points of view and give each employee a “voice” is part of diversity, equity and inclusion work. Educating employees about the existence of seminal events like Juneteenth is part of learning and development. And these initiatives do not stop at the borders; these same delivery mechanisms can be used to help employees understand what it’s like to be an Indian American, non-native English speaker, or woman in the workplace.

Discomfort somehow lands at HR’s door. Often, it’s because CEOs feel they need to be neutral. Looking at it from the employees’ vantage point adds a dimension to which many CEOs might not be sensitive. The workforce wants to work for a leader who cares, someone who applauds those who step up and make the workplace (and the world) better, and one who inspires trust and engagement from employees.

Left or right, Black or White, appreciating opinions and fervency helps build a strong culture, and that’s the CEO’s legacy.

About the Author

Larry Dunivan is the CEO of Namely


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