Keep the Conversation Going Series – 2023 Philly SHRM Symposium

I heard some things at the 2023 Philly SHRM Symposium that surprised me, including questions to a panel of Chief Human Resource Officers about how they’re promoting “social justice” in their companies, and remarks from human resource professionals like, “I never thought I’d have to do contact tracing in HR”.

Has the boundary between church and state had been crossed?

The questions and comments caught my attention because they seemed a bit out of place. In my view, HR professionals shouldn’t be doing contact tracing, as it’s more of a government public health department responsibility. And asking CHROs how they’re promoting social justice in their companies appeared odd because it’s a political movement. Most companies have HR policies prohibiting employees from promoting politics in the workplace, like wearing clothing with campaign slogans, so why would it be ok for HR leaders to leverage their power to do something similar? In sum, it seemed like “the boundary between church and state” had been crossed, metaphorically speaking. To give an example from the other side of the political spectrum, I imagine many would have been surprised (and maybe even offended) if questions to the CHRO panel were about what they’re doing to “make America great again”.

And it’s important to note that, from a bigger-picture perspective, the encroachment of politics into HR is part of a much larger trend – political activism has been crossing over into many facets of our lives where it wasn’t before. As I write this article, for example, there is heated controversy over Anheuser Busch partnering with a popular transgender influencer to promote Bud Light beer, and Disney is being criticized for promoting LGBT+ events and cartoons for children. And I’m sure many readers can recall when Gillette razors started making commercials just a few years ago in support of the #MeToo movement. It’s estimated that each company lost billions of dollars as a result, and phrases like “go woke, go broke” are now viral across the internet. So, politics has already found its way into our beer, cartoons, and personal care products. Similarly, big tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Meta (formerly Facebook) are currently embroiled in controversies related to their political involvement, including accusations of campaign interference, politically motivated censorship, and collusion with government.

Human resource professionals with political agendas may lose trust…

The above illustrates my main concern for HR’s involvement in politics – I don’t want to see human resource departments embroiled in similar controversies that have damaged companies like Twitter, Meta, etc. More specifically, I’m very concerned that human resource professionals will lose trust and credibility with employees and the general public if they’re perceived to be pushing a political agenda.

CNN, the news network, is another telling example of this concern. What was once considered a popular and trusted news organization just years ago has suffered a massive loss of viewers and credibility as political bias in their reporting proliferated.  Presently, many dismiss anything CNN produces as propaganda – they’ve lost their power to influence. The Human Resource field has come a long way since inception in terms of fighting for credibility and “earning a seat at the executive table” – it would be disastrous for it all to be lost like it was for CNN.

A line between company policy and political activism?

To be fair, however, it’s important to recognize that Human Resources must be involved in politics to some degree, or at least cooperate with government within ethical parameters. For example, there are obviously longstanding laws and government regulations that human resource professionals have to abide by and help implement. The Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a variety of other State and Federal regulations that protect employees are just a few that come to mind. Although, I know some would say there is an important distinction between established law, which has been vetted through legislative processes, and political activism, which often entails aspirational ideals that are not yet law (or may never be).

So where should we, as HR professionals, draw the line between company policy and political activism? Where exactly is our “separation between church and state”, so to speak? I don’t have a clear answer, as I don’t think there is one. However, I strongly believe it is incumbent upon HR professionals to be conscious of how political influences are seeping into their areas of responsibility, and make well-reasoned decisions accordingly, as the long-term implications for the profession will be profound.

About the Author

Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR is a Business Psychologist & Human Resource Consultant at Select Human Resources. Specializing in people-assessment, he profiles people for jobs, protects companies from bad hiring decisions, and gives decision-makers insight into people’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential. He has deep expertise in psychometric assessments and interview methods for hiring, development, and succession planning. Dr. Dumais is also a seasoned executive coach. He has a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology, bachelor degrees in Psychology and Health & Human Services, and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources with over 20 years of experience.

Editor: Dennis Paris

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