CEOs: Are you asking yourselves the hard questions?

Building a healthy company culture takes more than just good intentions — today it means being ready for polarizing political issues

Ellen K. Pao
Project Include


Photo by Drewdlecam CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Leading as CEO is complicated in today’s politically charged environment. How do you deal with the fear, tension, and anxiety that come from events in the news or on the streets outside your offices? How do you craft a company culture to withstand external storms that are difficult to foresee and impossible to prevent? How do you handle political views that polarize your workforce while managing your own beliefs? How do you even know when significant cultural problems arise?

Now more than ever, CEOs have to lead. Most situations are clear cut — it’s become more obvious how to deal with a serial harasser, for example. Or a leader who uses racist slurs repeatedly. Or an employee who argues that women are not equal to men. Sometimes, though, it is surprisingly hard for CEOs to do the right thing. Just this weekend, Uber executives said the COO has made multiple insensitive comments on race and gender, but the company’s CEO publicly stated that he would keep his second-in-command — despite his promises to fix Uber’s broken culture.

Where do you draw the line in your own company? Are you ready to enforce it?

At Project Include, we’ve always said CEOs set startup culture — everyone looks to you for what’s appropriate and what’s not. Doing the basic mininum means crafting and sharing a code of conduct and company values early; it may be the first time some employees learn professional standards for behavior. Otherwise, you’re reacting to culture rather than setting it; employees won’t know what to expect or do, and their behavior will be equally unpredictable.

The Thinker by Roman Suzuki CC BY 3.0 / cropped from original

We also urge CEOs in our Startup Include program to think hard about three hard questions — real-life tech examples — to understand what else they need to do:

  1. People of color at your company want to talk about external events that affect them personally, including Black Lives Matter. Other employees want to advocate that All Lives Matter. Do you allow either? How do you navigate the tensions?
  2. Employees want to form a conservative religious group to discuss the Bible and their views against same-gender marriage and abortion. Other employees feel threatened. Do you allow the group? Do you provide company resources?
  3. Some white employees say your company focuses too much on diversity and inclusion and too little on “diversity of thought.” They argue that diversity hiring “lowers the bar” and create a private, application-only Slack channel. Do you address that language? Do you allow the Slack channel? What if it involves alt-right or incel beliefs?
Courage by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

So what would you do?

You could ban political discussions and create a clear policy that’s “equal” across all groups — as many tech companies have actually done. But this approach leaves employees from underrepresented groups feeling excluded, because current events and issues affect them deeply, personally, and often existentially. Restricting political conversation could then lead to attrition, if employees feel they have to stay quiet and can’t be themselves, or that company culture doesn’t care about them. Also, these days, is it really feasible to ban these conversations?

You could limit political discussions among employees while offering external resources and outlets for underrepresented groups. Access to therapists trained to deal with powerful emotions can support people feeling threatened by external events. So can training your team, especially managers, to understand how race, gender, and other identities are used to exclude, impede, and inhibit your employees. Two effective tools are a well-run, thoughtful bias and harassment training as a part of a broader program, and Ally Skills Workshops, which can redirect anxiety into solutions and help employees feeling threatened by change to become part of positive change through advocacy.

Or you could allow political discussions and learn how to have hard conversations at work. You will need clear, thoughtful policies and systems so people don’t judge, bait, escalate, or argue for “civility” (usually a mechanism for shutting down underrepresented groups). The impact of such speech needs to be clear — particularly for underrepresented groups who fear retaliation. Done right, it can make people from underrepresented groups feel more connected, more loyal, and more productive.

If you take this path, your executive team needs to support you; everyone in leadership needs to be a role model-ambassador. They could probably benefit from training and workshops, and you still need to set and communicate clear values and a code of conduct. You can expect bumps along the way, but you can limit them by making some decisions in advance:

— What parameters and boundaries do you want to set for these discussions? “Civility” and anti-harassment standards have been turned on their heads to reinforce current power structures and dynamics.

How do you maintain an open and transparent discussion without it becoming a free-for-all that fragments your teams and drains energy?

— What do you do if somebody says something that conflicts with company values? Is your code of conduct clear about what is allowed and what is not? How do employees report and how do leaders handle violations? Are zero-tolerance rules applied fairly? Do your values promote inclusion directly or indirectly?

— How comfortable are you, the CEO, sharing your views? You have a big influence on how people talk about politics and diversity. If you speak authentically about how you feel, the tone of conversation will change; I’ve seen it happen.

Even if you don’t get the words exactly right, speaking up on hard issues shows commitment and strength. Showing you’re willing to make mistakes and improve can make your team more comfortable taking risks as allies and leaders.

There is no one right answer for all companies. You have to know your values, what you are willing to do, and what your culture and team can do. After a lot of work you will still need to keep refining the answers. But not doing enough is the wrong answer and will set your company, its culture, and your business back in the long run.



Ellen K. Pao
Project Include

Co-Founder and CEO of Project Include. Author of Reset. Angel investor.