Companies navigate new employee activism

Inc. Magazine

At Boxed’s SoHo office, in New York, you’ll find some employees still wearing Hillary Clinton 2016 T-shirts.

The online wholesale grocer’s CEO and founder, Chieh Huang, recalled his employees taking to Slack to air their feelings about the results of the presidential election. Huang said he had to remind his New York employees that the company has a lot of employees based in Texas and they likely see things differently.

When the midterm election came around, he did the same thing: Encourage employees to go out and vote, but avoid bringing up politics at work.

“My No. 1 job when I walk into the door is to create an atmosphere in which people don’t feel like they’re judged based on what they feel politically,” Huang said recently at the 92Y in New York.

Huang took the stage with Jennifer Fitzgerald, co-founder of online insurance marketplace Policygenius, Jon Stein, founder of investment management service Betterment, and Jill Schlesinger, a CBS News business columnist. The topic was how to operate a mission-driven company in a politically charged environment.

The past year has seen a rise in employee activism, with workers calling out some of the country’s biggest tech companies on a range of issues.

In November, thousands of Google employees around the world walked out to protest their employer’s handling of sexual harassment claims. A week later, the company said it would end its forced arbitration policy (Facebook, Airbnb and eBay quickly followed suit).

In June, a group of Amazon employees asked its CEO to cancel a contract for its Rekognition facial-recognition software for companies that work with U.S. immigration authorities. And more than 100 politically conservative Facebook employees formed an internal group to vent that the company is intolerant of opposing political thought, The New York Times reported in August.

At the same time, startups are taking increasingly bold stances on political issues when they directly affect their employees. During the turmoil around the Affordable Care Act, Fitzgerald said that Policygenius wrote op-eds about the importance of the ACA.

Some Boxed female employees recently testified before Nevada legislators on why they should eliminate the “tampon tax,” a 6.85 percent tax imposed specifically on feminine products.

Voters agreed and approved a measure to abolish the tax. While still obligated to collect sales taxes on these products in more than 30 states, Boxed is rebating the money to customers, at a cost of $1 million a month, Huang said.

The founder said he’s willing to take the hit to his bottom line because it affects employee retention; employees want to work for companies that take a stand on issues they care about.

“Keeping morale high and subsiding things people care about is really smart in the long run,” he said.

While private companies have more leeway when it comes to mingling their missions with politics, the ones that do this successfully establish a set of clear, consistent corporate values early on.

“As a startup company, one of the levers that you have and advantages that you have over the JPMorgans of the world is that you can be intentional about culture and values and mission as a way to attract people from companies that out-pay you,” said Fitzgerald.

Stein added that as mission-driven companies grow, their values and the way founders communicate them must evolve. When his company was still small, Stein spoke with customers frequently until his company started to scale in 2014.

While he can no longer personally interact with customers, he leans on his 240-person team to schedule periodic coffee meetings to get feedback with customers. This only works, Stein said, if you “hire people who perpetuate (your) values.”

On that subject, each founder had a go-to interview tactic to suss out the true character of job candidates.

Fitzgerald, for instance, uses the “chucklehead test,” asking the hardest thing the applicant has had to overcome, which helps reveal a person’s integrity and self-awareness.

Beyond how you hire, being mindful of small details in the day-to-day operations of a company is key, the founders said. Huang recently visited a fulfillment center in Las Vegas where he learned that the biggest concern for his fulfillment workers was very different from that of his staff members — not having a toilet paper holder.

To help create a more empathetic workplace, he makes sure that all employees experience working in fulfillment centers. At Policygenius, Fitzgerald said that because customer support employees start their calls at 9 a.m., everyone else comes in at that time to create a fair environment.

“Very thoughtful things can make a big difference,” she said.

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