HR Strategy

How HR leaders may respond to employees protesting

Leaders can reiterate existing policies and provide space for conversation, one Georgetown University professor recommends.
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· 4 min read

Protests against the Israel-Hamas war have at times affected the workplace. HR Brew spoke with a Georgetown business professor about how HR leaders may respond.

Transparency is key. On April 18, some Google employees staged a sit-in at the company’s New York offices to protest its Project Nimbus contract with the Israeli military.

Some advocates have criticized Google’s response, which resulted in the firing of roughly 50 employees. But Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist and professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, argued that the company’s response was seemingly aligned with its employee policies.

The company said that the first 28 employees were fired for violating its employee conduct and harassment guidelines, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Our investigation into these events is now concluded, and we have terminated the employment of additional employees who were found to have been directly involved in disruptive activity. To reiterate, every single one of those whose employment was terminated was personally and definitively involved in disruptive activity inside our buildings. We carefully confirmed and reconfirmed this,” read a Google statement, shared with HR Brew by Bailey Tomson, a communications manager at the tech giant.

“The number one thing that is vital is that companies are clear about their values and clear about their policies, and their actions have to follow that,” Washington told HR Brew. “When their actions don’t follow, that is where you see…people feeling like the organization has breached their trust.”

Many companies have social media clauses and decorum guidelines, but employees may need to be reminded. “Employees need to be clear on the organization’s policies around things like that, so they’re not caught off-guard and feel slighted,” she said. “They have to make informed decisions if they’re gonna go protest.”

Give employees space. One fired former Googler said the company refused to engage with employees who had expressed concerns about its involvement with Israel, the Guardian reported. “We don’t know of anyone who had actually been reached out to by HR. We were asked no questions. There was no consulting with us. No one asked us anything,” Hasan Ibraheem, a Google software engineer that was among those fired, told the newspaper.

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“This is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform, or to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai, said in an April memo responding to the criticism.

Washington believes employees should have a space to share concerns as they relate to their employer’s business practices. This, she said, may be one area where Google could have done things differently.

Discussing politics is “sometimes unavoidable,” Washington said, noting employees who are not able to express their concerns may become disengaged or want to leave the organization. “If employees don’t feel heard, just like in any other incidents, they’re going to have negative reactions,” Washington said.

Examine existing policies. Google isn’t the only employer navigating employee protests. University faculty have participated in demonstrations.

HR leaders should “revisit a lot of their policies and make sure that their policies are reflective of their true values,” Washington said, adding that organizations should also consult their legal team.

Some CEOs have become worried protests could impact their businesses, CEO of SHRM, Johnny C. Taylor told CNN. “I think Google’s response has given a lot of cover to other companies, but I’m hearing a lot of management teams put plans into place just in case.”

When it comes to employees protesting outside of work, Taylor said employees “have a right to protest and to have a point of view. But if that in any way does not reflect your company’s culture or values or (causes) disrepute to their brand, they have a right to fire you.” Washington disagreed: “I don’t think there should be policies that prohibit what you do and your rights to free speech and to protest outside of work.”

Regardless of what policies are in place, Washington said that leaders can’t ignore the issues happening outside the workplace because employees care about them. “If HR bury their heads in the sand, they are going to really wish they took this time to be thoughtful because again I don’t foresee things not continuing to be challenging on these fronts as this is an election year.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.