Respecting the opinions of individuals, while being For The People

“Can anyone help me create a ‘yes’ post for social media?”

This is how it started. It seems pretty straight forward, but it very quickly set off a series of passionate debates at For The People.

I should add here, that fortunately for me as a co-owner of the business, they were a series of debates that were conducted in a grown up and mature manner. We’ve always taken pride in our transparency.

After many years of trying, the Australian government is putting it to the public to try and make a decision on whether Australia should legally allow same-sex couples to marry. Depending on who you listen to, this is because, they don’t have the strength and confidence to address the factions in the cabinet and Liberal party, they can’t be seen to be making such important decisions without confidence that the majority of the country will support them, or they really do care what the people think and make the right decision.

It looks fairly simple on paper.

A simple question

“Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

…and have the same rights as heterosexual couples? Should marriage go beyond the traditional, historical, religious definition of between a man and a woman. The answer? Yes or No. The problem with this situation is not the question. It’s the lack of information to make an informed decision. The government has not committed to actually doing anything with the results of the vote. They don’t have to go with the majority. Perhaps calling it a vote isn’t really that accurate. It’s much more of an opinion poll.

No legislation has been released as to what the future looks like should the government decide to implement a ‘yes’ decision. This has led to all sorts of speculation around the implications for curriculum and education, religious institutions, and Australia’s upholding of what many see as basic human rights regardless of faith. Many predicted this would become a bit of a 💩 fight — and it has. Depending on where you live, what you believe, how vocal you choose to be with your opinion, what circles you hang in, I suspect that many people have experienced varying degrees of discomfort, and in some cases much worse. What started as (and still is for some) a simple individual vote or opinion has quickly descended into us vs them. A two-sided battle where the winner takes (maybe) all.

Back to business. Why did the request for help in creating a ‘yes’ post for social media turn into something bigger at For The People?

Firstly, our business is made up of individuals. We’ve hired people with different races, nationalities, religions, genders and beliefs. In fact, the more diverse the merrier. Difference leads to much richer and more interesting discussions and perspectives both socially and in our work. In our business of 12 people we have and had employees who, are openly gay, have ‘2 moms’, have a family member that’s given up on a same-sex marriage because of family differences, are strongly religious, are strongly atheist. Our team comes from 5 different countries, some are married with children, some live with a partner, some are single, intentionally and unintentionally, and almost half are female. Stick that lot in a melting pot and see if you can reach 100% consensus on anything.

Now that’s perfectly ok, and so it should be. We respect the individuals that work for us. They’re here for a reason and we value their varied opinions and experiences. Of course we have to reach consensus in making recommendations for clients, but that’s part of our job.

Internally, we look after our own. We don’t want to alienate. And in our practice as a business, we don’t. I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed or alienated as the result of the specific and deliberate action of our company. Everyone should have complete freedom of speech in our team. For example, we love the initiative and passion shown by Liv in creating these patches (sorry they’re sold out).

Initiative and passion by Olivia King

This brings me to the second point. There are pro’s and con’s to groups or businesses entering this debate. My personal feeling is that it’s not the company’s job to put out a point of view on this specific issue. I believe this because it is a highly loaded and individual issue, and it is an issue that individuals were asked to vote on, not businesses.

I know that not everyone agrees with this point of view (of course)! I’ve had conversations with people who would feel significantly uncomfortable with a public display of yes, and many more for no. They argue that we would encourage our clients to have a “strong point of view” so why don’t we?

The difference is (and maybe it’s nuanced) but the strong point of view we encourage our clients to have is related to their industry, their customers and their capabilities. We encourage them to connect that point of view to business activity like products, service, culture and communications. I see this issue as different — regardless of what I believe personally. Yes, many companies have come out and declared their stance, and we respect that. Others have tried to speak on behalf or influence their people and have come unstuck.

At the same time, I also understand that people choose to work for us (over others) for a reason, unlike families, who in some cases have been plunged into generational conflict, (because well, you can’t choose your family). They believe in what we stand for and what we’re trying to do. They feel proud to work at For The People. Some believe that pride should extend to our stance on this issue.

Let me explain what we stand for. To do this I’ll pull from a couple of different sources. Our philosophy and our manifesto.

1 — Live our name. 
We’re called For The People. This is both good and not so good. As some background, here’s where it came from. We believe that many brands and companies have lost the ability to communicate, to recognise people as individuals, to understand their needs and wants, their desires, what they love and what they hate. Instead they’re focused too often on a return for shareholders, protecting their territory and price-wars. We need to help them understand their customers better and create solutions for people.

Inevitably, this has changed in meaning over time and as more and more people have joined the company. For The People has become an inspiring statement. It’s become a criteria, a motto, and on more than one occasion is one of the reasons clients want to talk to us, because of what they believe it to mean. So when it comes to an issue overwhelmingly concerning ‘people’ shouldn’t we be out there and for it 100%?

2 — We’re for the ones who challenge the nay-sayers, defy the incrementalists, and rethink the systems that stop progress in its tracks. 
It’s very hard to argue against this one. Why wouldn’t our people demand that we take a stand for change and progress? Marriage has its origins in times much older than the one we live in today. As one writer for Vice put it:

“But marriage is still the oldest institution we have, and it should never, ever be redefined. Except in 1882 when the United Kingdom determined that women were not the property of their husbands. And except in 1967 when the USA decriminalized interracial marriage. And except in 1992 when marital rape was criminalized by the Australian Supreme Court. But maybe that’s the point: marriage has been redefined enough already!”

Again, personally I hate standing still. I always think things can be done better. But then I’ve never been taught otherwise. Unlike others who may have been brought up with strong beliefs in one religion or another with very specific views on relationships and marriage. I’m for progress and transformation and can sometimes get frustrated by legacy, tradition and ‘but it’s always been that way’. I admire and look up to those who blaze a trail for a better world. Then again, a better world for me, might not be a better world for someone else.

3 — Always sharing, transparent and brutally honest (even when it feels uncomfortable). 
This point is the reason I’m writing. As founders we have been challenged by our team not to remain silent on the issue. No matter what the resolution is, we can’t just ignore it. If it’s important to our people then it needs to be taken seriously by us.

So here we are. This is us sharing, being transparent and brutally honest.

Last week, after many private and group Slack messages we had to get this out in the open with the people it mattered most to. As much as I drive for transparency in our business I was looking forward to that particular conversation, about as much as I would look forward to an intimate dinner with Pauline Hanson (or to publishing this article). But, I should have had more faith in the integrity of the people we work with. Over this last week, I’ve had many mature, sophisticated, grown up discussions that give me faith in our ability to work things out, no matter what the eventual outcome is. Let’s face it, we’ll have a Labour government at some point and inevitably, this will happen.

I felt encouraged by the conversation. There was no doubt that passions were running high and I was acutely aware that by trying to remain neutral (despite what I believed on the matter) I could be seen as coming across as against my ‘yes’ colleagues.

It was a pretty intense day. If that conversation wasn’t enough, 30 minutes later we had Book Club. We’re currently reading a potentially highly charged and controversial book (for some) called Homo Deus. The discussion was again, grown up and well handled. We discussed science vs religion and debated if obeying the past is detrimental to modern day needs. Yes, this is what we get up-to over lunch. It was so intense that in the meeting after I was able to introduce our policy about mental health ‘on a lighter note’.

As I was driving home you couldn’t have written the script better for the fantastical rainbow that hit the skies above Sydney. Some sort of divine nod to everything already going through my head? Much more impactful than a skywriter 😉 by the way!

Courtesy of @bennethwalker

After these discussions we concluded that the best way to make a public statement was to be transparent and brutally honest about what was happening in our business, in a way that represents where we’re at, and may even help others experiencing the same challenge.

What you’re reading is the result. We don’t take anything lightly in our business. We consider the decisions and statements we make. We don’t jump on bandwagons. We take stock, confront the difficult subjects and have the hard conversations, even if it means high levels of discomfort.

In the interest of full transparency and brutal honesty. Many people at For The People are voting yes. Others have remained private, and some are voting no. We have to respect the variety of beliefs of the individuals in our business. When they are different, it is not our place to speak so wholly and finally for everyone. Some of these beliefs have been established since birth, are part of everyday family and community and are multi-generational. It is not a simple yes or no for them.

This has become an overly divisive debate, it has caused (arguably) unnecessary public angst, over a long period. Many people have undoubtedly wrestled with their own beliefs and dismissed the beliefs of others. Because of the lack of clarity by the government about what the implications of the vote are (in fact, let’s just call it complete dismissal of responsibility and commitment) it has led to much postulating about what will or won’t happen based on a seemingly simple yes or no. In many cases it’s this ambiguity and complexity which has led to the angst between family members, communities, colleagues and fellow humans.

A colleague of mine (and notable Brené Brown fan) shared a passage from Brown’s latest book that I think is highly relatable to the situation we’re in. The context (for Brené) was gun ownership in the US as she found herself confronted by another lady who had a very clear, black and white view of the issue. Over to Brené…

“She was so angry at this point. She spit out, ‘You either support guns or you don’t.’ Because I was already working on this book, I said the thing that I’ve felt my entire life but was either too afraid to say or didn’t have the words.

I mustered up the most empathy I could and said, “I know that this is a hard and heartbreaking issue, but I don’t think you’re hearing me. I’m not going to participate in a debate where this issue is reduced to You either support guns or you don’t. It’s too important. If you want to have a longer conversation about it, I’m happy to do that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the same issues piss us off and scare us.”

I hope that more people can pluck up the courage to have a ‘longer conversation’. I know how hard it is. I’ve been having them and so have our team. The important thing is to have them. Don’t just sling a tweet, share a post, gram a rainbow. Have a good old fashioned chat and engage with others who don’t think the same as you. Try to understand how they’re feeling too. Talk to those who feel discriminated against, oppressed, fearful, unperturbed. Do it to understand, not to influence and convince. That way, we’ll have a chance of this working out better — either in the short term or the long term.

I’ll be completely honest with you at this point. There are many things that I expected to be hard about running a business. The debates and expectations of the last week have been some of the most intense we’ve had since starting 3 years ago. I don’t think we expected it. Taking on the writing of this article (which has gone through multiple iterations) isn’t something I’ve enjoyed. It’s led to plenty of sought (and un-sought) after advice from friends and colleagues. Feedback has ranged from balanced and fair, to disappointment that it doesn’t land on ‘yes’, to “don’t publish it.” I have zero-chance of keeping everyone happy, but then this isn’t about me. I can’t complain about having to write an article explaining our situation. I already have my privileges.

Here is the final word: ultimately, the majority of people in our business will vote Yes to allow same-sex couples to marry under Australian law. We respect the rights of people to vote either way. We trust that we can continue to work healthily as a team in the way that we did before this happened. In fact, maybe this has helped us gain a better of understanding of each other. We wholeheartedly believe that change and progress is a good thing, for the right reasons. We believe that the way this vote has been put to the Australian people should be a lesson on how not to make these decisions in future.

We won’t be making a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ post. We’re happy for any of our team to post on the matter. We’ll continue to hire and respect the opinions of all the diverse people in our team now and in the future. There is a significant amount at stake here for individuals. The emotions and opinions shared by individuals in our team have proven that. We hope that our honesty and transparency in sharing the debate and challenges we’ve been having can help others as we hurtle towards the end (maybe) of this debate.

PS For full disclosure, personally I support and would vote Yes. Unfortunately I’m not a citizen, I’m only a permanent resident. I don’t have the right.

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