Outside the Box: Bosses need to talk with employees about abortion and women’s rights. Here’s why yours should.

The Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade has Americans on both sides of the abortion rights issue engulfed in high emotion. There is a lot of conjecture about how companies and their leaders should be speaking out, taking a stand and taking action. But what about “speaking in” to employees?

The Court’s ruling in late June impacts employees in a majority of U.S. states. How should organizational leaders (including many men who are uncomfortable talking about this, yet likely to be economically impacted by the ruling) address employee concerns? What should they do for their employees, and how do they talk about abortion rights when it is seen by some as a private moral issue and by others as a foundational women’s rights and human rights issue? 

We argue that leaders have an obligation to listen and learn from their employees, understand the type of support they need, demonstrate care, empathy and concern through their actions, and engage in public advocacy for those in their organization most likely to be impacted by this issue. Leaders can have their own personal views on this issue (as most people do), while leveraging allyship skills in initiating and mediating conversations about how recent events are impacting employees. 

“ Message to leaders: Your employees are watching, listening, and deciding whether to stay at your company. ”

People already are having these conversations at work. Many feel afraid, some feel isolated or alone, while others are confused and worried about the future. None of these feelings are conducive to a healthy and productive workforce. Message to leaders: Your employees are watching, listening, and deciding whether to stay at your company or perhaps even in a state that doesn’t support women’s rights

This is no time for leaders to be passive or silent. This is a time for leaders to proactively engage their workforce, reinforce their company’s values with actions, and demonstrate transparency about where they and their company stand on this issue. As leaders, we don’t often consider social issues like this Supreme Court ruling to be an organizational crisis—but we should. This may be a salient turning point in the long-term viability of your organization with implications for both internal and external stakeholders.

We facilitated these conversations (related to Texas SB8 — the “Texas Heartbeat Act,” which restricts abortion) with C-suite leaders as part of a leadership workshop sponsored by Tara Health Foundation. Authentic but challenging conversations about how to talk about legislation restricting women’s rights and access to healthcare was one of the most powerful parts of the workshop, according to these leaders.

“ Here are six evidence-based recommendations for how leaders can engage in these difficult conversations.”

Here are six evidence-based recommendations for how leaders can engage in these difficult conversations, support their workforce, and maintain a successful and forward-looking business:

1. Act decisively and quickly: This is a crisis. During a crisis, the absence of information compounds your people’s uncertainty and fear. Many leaders have yet to take the pulse of their organization, including how people are feeling about a loss of rights and control related to an issue like abortion. If you’re not sure, use the venues and processes already in place in your company to listen and learn. Crisis leadership requires leaders to act before rumors, uncertainty, or emotion-based clashes take hold and disrupt their business. And worse, allow people to make poor decisions with negative consequences.

2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable: Abortion rights have historically been entangled in health, human, religious, political, legal and moral rights, making this the thorniest of issues. Even the most confident leader would wish to stick their head in the sand and hope the issue blows over.

Are you worried about getting it wrong or upsetting someone? Our advice — get over yourself. Be authentic, demonstrate humility, admit that this is hard stuff but that you stand with your people. Your people will respond in kind.

3. Engage key resources and stakeholders: As you prepare to engage with your employees regarding actions you are going to take, consult your board, senior leadership team, and employee resource group leaders to gain insight and others’ expertise. Employee resource groups, in particular, are typically led by people with significant influence over various stakeholder groups. They can provide new perspectives, strategic messaging, awareness of unique stakeholder issues, and serve as a conduit for providing support and conflict resolution.

If you’re a CEO, ideally you have a good relationship with your board and are able to talk to them about your ideas and incorporate their guidance. Similarly, your senior leadership team needs a unified and clear direction on messaging and implementing the chosen course of action.

“ Don’t assume that abortion is only a women’s issue.”

4. Don’t assume that abortion is only a women’s issue: Too often, we overlook the ways abortion rights affect men, erroneously assuming it is exclusively a “women’s issue.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, men are sharing on social media and other outlets about how abortion has impacted their life. Research shows that one in five men have had a partner whose pregnancy was terminated by abortion. Create space for men’s voices to join with their female colleagues and ensure that policies and actions are inclusive.

5. Don’t just paint a rosy picture. “Hold” your people: During a crisis, effective leaders help their people contain the situation and interpret what has occurred — what psychologists call “holding.” In this way, leaders overcome uncertainty (containment) by helping their followers stay tethered to the “knowns” — the company’s commitment to their health and well-being, what the company will do to listen, understand their needs and support them, the resources that are available, and — just as important — what won’t happen to them.

Consistently framing the situation in line with facts and reiterating the company’s commitment helps people to make sense of what happened and provides a purposeful path forward. 

“ Be tolerant of people’s actions up to the point they take away people’s rights or autonomy. ”

6. Be tolerant, compassionate and civil: In these difficult conversations, groups of people will not agree with your decisions and actions. The paradox of tolerance suggests that we should be tolerant of people’s actions up to the point they take away people’s rights or autonomy — and then we should not be tolerant.

Women and men are both affected by the ability to make an abortion decision. These are difficult and agonizing choices which have long-term consequences that women and men have to live with. Show them compassion. American society and organizations were founded on the concept of civil discourse. Civility is not only a duty to do no harm, but a duty to do good. Leaders of organizations have a duty to do good for people — whether it supports the short-term bottom-line or not.

The Supreme Court’s decision to rescind a longstanding right has shaken Americans, and many people in your company are probably upset and struggling with it. As a leader, you need to show up, listen generously, demonstrate empathy and speak about whether and how your company will support employees and how it will (or will not) take a public stand on the issue of reproductive rights.

W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith are the coauthors of “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace,” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020), and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women,” Harvard Business Review Press, 2019).

Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Smith is an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

More: What percentage of Americans support Roe v. Wade? How people really feel about abortion, according to polls

Also read: 3 things businesses should do to support their workers’ reproductive choices beyond paying for employees’ abortion-related travel expenses

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