AB Thinks  →  18th August 2022

Where news enters the workplace: should your CEO speak up?

Living through “unprecedented times” has become constant. Having made it through the Covid-19 pandemic upheaval, we now face global unrest, climate chaos and the constant news cycle of political and economic crisis.

In The States, citizens are still reeling from the fall-out of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, which threatens women’s bodily autonomy and right to vital reproductive healthcare. In Ukraine, war wages on amid shocking news of many human rights violations. And in the UK, we patiently await news of who our next Prime Minister could be, following a series of very high-profile scandals.

This constant cycle of bad news weighs heavily on employees, who are citizens first. Each of your colleagues will certainly be feeling the effects to their mood, overall wellbeing and ability to stay focused at work.

So where does your leadership team step in when it comes to addressing such sensitive, often polarising issues? Let’s look at the research.

Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer gives a bleak snapshot of citizen trust in government and media leaders, which has fallen through the floor since 2020. Distrust is now the default, with businesses being seen as the most trustworthy institution. But societal fears run deep across the world, and colleagues now look to their business’s leadership to make an impact.

It’s no longer acceptable for businesses to be Switzerland – 60 percent of people only consider joining a company where the CEO speaks up publicly about controversial social and political issues that they care about.

Today’s colleagues seek opportunities with companies that share their values. To attract and retain top talent your business must stand for something – colleagues want to feel part of something bigger, whether that means joining an environmentally conscious organisation or one that offers volunteering opportunities and encourages social good in the community.

Colleagues also want to feel protected and championed by their employers, and considering the Great Resignation, many are voting with their feet. In The States, many companies are grappling with the best ways to support employees who feel effected by the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, some organisations are committing to assist with travel costs to “save haven” states where abortion is legal. But with it being such a sensitive and divisive topic, organisations must tread carefully.

The polarisation we see in society around many important issues will inevitably be reflected inside our micro communities at work. If companies decide to take a stand on an issue, this must align with their mission and values. But most importantly, organisations need to listen to their workforce. Misreading (or ignoring) what employees care about can quickly lead to employee activism.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that CEOs need to voice an opinion on anything and everything – it’s a tricky line to draw. At a recent IABC event, AB’s managing director Katie Macaulay took to the virtual stage to debate Stephen Forshaw on the subject. “When we see the number of pressing societal issues that need addressing – from climate change to racial and gender equality – it is tempting to think all CEOs should be using their power and influence to speak out whenever and wherever they can,” she writes in a recap article from the event. “But I would urge caution.”

Katie goes on to list her three key arguments against CEO’s speaking up. In a nutshell:

  1. Time is fleeting. Many CEOs are in the job for just 4.9 years. If they’re only in the job for 250 weeks, isn’t that time best spent cleaning up their own house? Many organisations are late to the table with net-zero plans, for example.
  2. Talk is cheap. What the world needs now is action – not more hot air. As the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin said: “Well done is better than well said.”
  3. Representation matters. There’s no escaping it: CEOs are overwhelmingly white, middle-aged men. Given this backdrop, perhaps the most helpful thing CEOs can do is invite someone else to the stage.


So what’s the solution? Organisations must provide a safe space to colleagues to share their opinions, fears and expectations from leadership. We must breed organisational cultures where dissent is not viewed as threatening – ideally, we want open dialogue. Making space for colleagues at all levels to discuss, organise and take action can have a positive effect on the way they work.

Aligning with your workforce is a major challenge of many companies around the world. It’s a challenge we meet head-on with our purpose-led approach to internal communications. Discover how AB’s Acid Test can help you break down barriers to understanding and drive strategic alignment across your organisation here.