NEW YORK – In a time of rising political tension, many brands and corporations are entering societal debates by taking positions on the hot-button issues dominating discourse online, in the media, and in the workplace. Most recently, the reenergized #BlackLivesMatter movement following George Floyd’s murder this spring sparked an outpouring of support for racial justice and equity from CEOs across industries – including Ramon L. Laguarta at PepsiCo, Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase, and Brian Chesky at Airbnb. Perhaps at no other point in history have corporate leaders and their companies been more active in voicing their stance on social-political issues. But while past studies have focused on how those positions impact a company’s customer base, new research from Columbia Business School Professor of Management Vanessa Burbano is the first to analyze how companies’ social-political stances can affect employees.
Professor Burbano finds that taking a controversial political position offers no upside to employee productivity. When employees disagree with their company’s stance on a social-political issue, research shows their work performance – as measured by both quality of work and quantity of tasks completed – actually decreases. However, when employees agree with their company’s stance on an issue, there is no measurable impact on their job performance. These results hold true regardless of whether a company’s stance is “for” or “against” the issue.
“Employee motivation has been a major blind spot in previous analyses of corporate activism, which so often focused on consumers,” said Professor Burbano. “Despite the upsurge in social-political activism we are seeing in corporations today, the evidence shows that these stances do not increase motivation or performance on the part of employees. In fact, they can undermine workplace productivity.”
The study, “The Demotivating Effects of Communicating a Social-Political Stance: Field Experimental Evidence from an Online Labor Market Platform” used the online labor market platform, Upwork, to recruit about 780 workers to complete tasks for a company and also fill out a survey on their stances on various social-political issues, including gun control, immigration, climate change, and LGBTQ equality. The same workers were then hired by another company and randomly assigned to either receive information about the company’s stance toward gender-neutral bathrooms – for or against – or receive no information about the company’s stance on the issue at all. The researcher then tracked the productivity of the workers in terms of quality of work performed and willingness to do extra work.
“Rather than jumping to speak out on the issue of the day, managers should think twice before taking a public stance on a social-political issue. Managers should instead first make an effort to understand their employees’ social-political leanings to avoid making a decision that could be demotivating to their workforce,” said Professor Burbano.
- ALL ASPECTS OF WORK AFFECTED – An employer’s social-political stance effects both the quality of required work completed, and the quantity of extra work completed for the employer.
- SOCIAL-POLITICAL STANCES MARK MAJOR RISK FOR EMPLOYERS – The results show that when employers are unaware of the social-political values of their employees, their decisions could result in worsened employee performance.
- VALUES ARE A MAJOR FACTOR IN EMPLOYER/EMPLOYEE RELATIONSHIP – The research confirms that agreement on values and issues is a key determinant of employee/company compatibility.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Vanessa Burbano is the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Management in the strategy area at Columbia Business School. She was named to