Is It Appropriate For Employees to 'Take a Knee' in the Workplace?

Four executives weigh in on how they view the NFL controversy, as applied to their respective companies.
Is It Appropriate For Employees to 'Take a Knee' in the Workplace?
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We’ve all seen the video clips: NFL players kneeling prior to the start of their game as the Star-Spangled Banner plays. And the opinions that have resulted have been divided between whether those players are "disrespecting the flag and the military" or whether they are "protesting injustice, not the flag."

Related: Why the New 'Take a Knee' Policy Isn't Likely to Heal the NFL's Damaged Brand

The players are divided, the owners are divided, the country is divided. What to do?

A 2017 CBS/YouGov poll found that, regardless of whether they agreed with the protests or not, 73 percent of Americans surveyed thought NFL players were trying to call attention to racism, and 69 percent said they were calling attention to police violence. However, 40 percent said such protests were disrepectful toward the flag, while 33 percent said the players' action disrespected the military.

As an employer, you might be asking: Does the NFL (or any other employer) have the right to quell employees from expressing their views on social policies or political causes? After all, former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. is credited with saying in 1891that, "An employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed."

So, when is it appropriate for employees to express their opinion and take a stand while on company time? Is it appropriate? Should it be permitted only after hours? Wheredoes a company draw the line?

I decided to gauge the temperature among my circle of c-suite executives, who gave me some very interesting responses.

Derreck Stratton -- CEO, Startup Syndicate

Stratton says: “As a member of a team, whether that be a professional sports team or the marketing team of a corporation, individually you represent something larger than yourself. You represent the whole. Your performance both on the clock and off the clock directly reflects upon the rest of your teammates. You have a duty to protect the safety and integrity of not only the other members of your team but the team as a whole. Unity and “esprit de corps” are directly correlated to the overall efficiency and success of the team. You rise together, and you fall together. You win as a team and you lose as a team. One vision, one mission.

"When is it appropriate to take a stand in the workplace? Only when by taking a stand you do not create division within the team. 'United we rise, divided we fall.'"

Related: Why Should Your Business Care About Social Responsibility?

My comment: I will push back on this last point with a question: Isn’t the point of taking a stand to start a conversation that could be uncomfortable for some and can create some level of tension?

In my book, Think Big, Act Bigger, I discuss the wisdom of pushing boundaries -- often. I’m a firm believer in creating tension whenever possible. It’s OK to push things to the edge of the table, just not off the table. Leaders need to create tension and results by pushing further and further in order to move the team in the same direction and create results.

While I understand that not everyone will subscribe to this philosophy, I think that in order to move the needle forward, businesses need to address some of the issues facing the country. Ignoring them may compound the problem, which could lead to an internal combustion at your company.

Robert Wulf -- managing partner, Rhino Global Enterprises

Wulf says: There is no question. There are problems to be solved, but kneeling or not kneeling for the national anthem doesn’t get them solved.

"Solving them requires getting involved and becoming an advocate for that change and driving change through communities, organizations and people, whether through starting your own organization or helping advocate or lead for one that already exists. But that is a personal choice and requires personal work. It shouldn’t be forced on others. 

"Owners have the ability to set work rules based on what’s good for the entire organization. If people don’t like those work rules, then they can either quit, or bring their grievances before the decision-makers and managers to see if they can make a change.

"Once again, as an employer, there are some set rules and regulations that I want my team to follow. So, I understand the NFL’s need to create a policy that, while unpopular to some, ends up benefiting the organization as a whole.

"Employers need to focus on the bigger picture without ignoring the issues that need to be addressed. In my office, there are several individuals that are politically engaged and have very strong opinions about certain issues. Sometimes we even get into some very interesting discussions. I think it’s healthy to talk about topics as a result of the current political climate. I don’t mind if it’s done on company time, as long as the work gets done -- and it does get done.

Jason Forrest -- CEO and chief culture officer, Forrest Performance Group

Forrest says: “I think everyone should feel free to speak what they believe based on their values, but I also think they need to then be OK with the result of that in the workplace. Before taking a stand, I’d run everything through a six-step process. 

  1. Am I proposing a solution as well as addressing the problem?
  2. Am I willing to put my credibility on the line?
  3. Is the problem I’m addressing a pattern or an isolated incident?
  4. Is this in my company’s best interest?
  5. Does my stand take into account how this will affect my team?
  6. Am I willing to be fired over my stand? 
  7. Every person is free to make their own value-based decisions so long as they take the time to accept the consequences.”

My comment: As a former chief marketing officer, I’m well aware that your brand is everything. How you position yourself will have a direct effect on how others perceive you. As a national speaker, I’ve been told many times not to use salty language on stage because it might offend some. I’ve told them I won’t change anything about my speech on those conditions alone. I won’t compromise my brand to fit into someone else’s idea of what I should be and how I should behave.

As a result, I’ve had people not want to hire me as a speaker, and I’m perfectly OK with that. I know there are consequences to my actions, but I won’t use those as an excuse to compromise my brand.

Christopher Cumby -- Author and chief development officer, Startup Syndicate

Cumby says: “I think it’s a matter of three perspectives: What I want, what you want, what we both want -- and then, ultimately, the alignment of a common goal that creates change into harmony.”

"Simply put [I believe that], One who seeks respect shall attain it through giving respect. I believe in the Golden Rrule.”

My comment: Protesting for the sake of being contrarian never helped any cause -- as worthy as the protest may seem. Having a reason to enact change, have the means to enact change and have the solutions that will drive the change are essentials in any business environment. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. We need to address changes to our companies, our business environment and to the overall societal culture. Without change, there’s no growth.

Related: Facebook Says It Can't Police All Posts for Racism

So, is taking a knee in the workplace appropriate? It depends where you work and your point of view. As Roseanne Barr learned recently, the First Amendment protects you, not your job. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.

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