Sorry to disappoint but we will not be spending the next paragraphs passing moral judgement on Microsoft or McKinsey. Fun though that might be. But we are going to talk about some political PR pickles that both companies got into this week, and some lessons there for managers.
Before we get into detail, some useful background. It’s convenient that this week the Harvard Business Review chose to publish research from Bea Boccalandro, a consultant and lecturer at Georgetown University on ‘Why Your Values Belong at Work.’ She found that those who feel they have social purpose in the workplace are more satisfied, productive, calm, healthier and happier.
We don’t have the expertise to fully critique the research, but the conclusion that working with social purpose is better than slaving away for the dark gods of capitalism sounds about right.
Which brings us to McKinsey and Microsoft, who this week were confronted by issues which potentially undermined their claims to this kind of social purpose.
In Moscow, as opposition figures called for political demonstrations, the managing partner of the local McKinsey office sent an orwellian email to staff stating “McKinsey employees must not support any political activity either publicly or privately” and asking them to “stay safe, stay neutral, enjoy weekend” by staying away from the marches.
This was swiftly followed by a “clarification” email that “McKinsey supports its employees' rights to participate legally and in a personal capacity in civic and political activities across the countries we operate. The recognition of these rights is unqualified.”
As for Microsoft, Maciej Cegłowski, a Polish-American entrepreneur and speaker, obtained a copy of President Brad Smith’s remarks from an employee meeting on 21 January about some of their corporate donations (following the leak, Microsoft also released the remarks in full).
Like many other companies, Microsoft has halted donations from its political action committee (PAC) to members of US congress whilst it works out a policy for whether or not it should give to those who voted against the certification of the 2020 US election results.
In his remarks, Smith mused on whether it was still important to even have a PAC. You can read his remarks but he essentially said yes, because without it, Microsoft wouldn’t be able to influence the political process in their or their employees’ interests. As many noted, this policy of helping elect politicians with whom you disagree so you can influence them might be improved by instead not helping elect them in the first place. Some employees were reportedly unimpressed.
Corporate actions like this potentially undermine the social purpose we discussed earlier (potentially making employees less satisfied, productive, calm, healthier and happier). Particularly when employers may have tried to previously heighten that sense of social purpose.
The tension can be seen in anonymous statements that various Microsoft employees gave to Judd Legum, an investigative journalist.
‘"Microsoft has done amazing work and contributed to so many worthy causes. But they're literally undoing their own work and undermining their own environmental and social justice initiatives with this pattern of donations"
One employee said Microsoft, in general, is "a great company culturally" but "the PAC is a major WTF."
Our management expertise extends to telling you that the less major WTFs on your team, the better.
Resolving political tensions between employees and their employers is complex and specific, and we’re not going to try and provide all the answers here. But...
Firstly, if you happen to be in a relevant decision-making role, you might see aspects of these events that you’d prefer to avoid and lessons to learn. But even if you’re not, these two incidents remind us of some of the basics that all managers can try and do in these circumstances.
For companies whose business entails engaging with governments, this will keep happening and there will be some muddling through when controversies clash with business objectives. There is potentially no better illustration of this tension than the Microsoft blog, which managed to arrange Smith’s remarks next to a call for more ethical business practices (on a separate issue!).
Clearly, there is room for compromise, and leaders will have to learn to manage it.
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