Managing Dissent in the Workplace in Polarised and Divisive and Volatile Times
It is Inevitable for Dissent and Debate to Happen in Corporates in These Volatile Times
It is often thought that dissent and high pitched debates and discussions do not happen in corporates and other organisations where the workforce is thought to be highly disciplined and moreover, such entities often cite Human Resource (HR) policies to prevent such expression of views.
On the other hand, there are those who aver that there is no place for dissent in corporates since their mandate is business and hence, the only debate that matters is about how to further profits and run the business. Indeed, most corporates, even now, ensure that discussions and debates in the AGMs (Annual General Meetings), All Hands Meets, and Offsite retreats are only about their policies and the way in which they can enhance their revenues and profits.
However, it is also the fact that debates and dissent happens in all corporates especially in these polarised and divisive times where events in the external world often intrude into the corporate culture and where the volatility outside seeps into the organisational fabric.
In other words, given the highly charged times that we are living in, it is inevitable that political and social events impact employees as they are after all human, and hence, it is not possible to separate the professional and political selves.
Free Speech and Debate and Dissent within Reasonable Limits of Conduct
Therefore, it is our contention that any discussions on the political events and debates on the issues of the times have to be managed well so that employees feel that they are not being silenced or feel that they are being denied the Right to Free Speech and at the same time, the workplace culture should not be vitiated on account of these debates.
Indeed, this is the central challenge for all HR Managers in contemporary workplaces wherein they should both allow debates and at the same time, regulate and monitor them so that they do not become vitriolic and damage the organisational fabric.
At present, there are very few organisations in India that allow such debates to take place in officially sanctioned places and media.
For instance, the Indian Information Technology Bellwether, Infosys, encourages its employees to post their views and express their opinions on its Virtual Bulletin Board.
In our experience, this is a good way to channelise the pent up feelings and to ensure that employees engage in healthy discussions and debates with their co-workers.
How Google Allows Debate and Dissent and Some Unpleasant Outcomes as Well
Having said that, it is also the fact that such media for expression of views of the employees tend to get affected by the bilious debates and hence, HR Managers do need to ensure that the debate remains civil and within accepted norms of discussion.
The term accepted norms of debate can be construed to mean expression of views within the ambit of organisational policies and the overall mandate.
Of course, defining what is acceptable and what is not becomes problematic and it is for their very reason that we suggest corporates to come up with SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures on what constitutes Free Speech in the corporate domain and what is beyond permissible.
In this context, it is worth noting that among Silicon Valley firms, Google is known to encourage and even tolerate Free Speech that is way beyond what is allowed in other tech firms.
Indeed, given the fact that the Tech workers are often young and restless and have opinions on almost everything Under the Sun, Googles approach is laudable.
On the other hand, this has also led to some unpleasant outcomes in recent times wherein its employees actually resorted to strikes and walkouts after intense debate over some of its policies.
Curbing of Dissent Tends to Harm Organisations and Leads to Factions
So, should employees be strictly monitored to avoid debate and discussion? Should they then have such discussions in the Grapevine and other places where chances of regulation and surveillance are limited?
The point we are making is that unless employees have an outlet to discuss and debate, they would merely shift the venue of such discussions to the Cafeteria or the Coffee Machine or the Water Cooler. Moreover, given the extreme polarisation and divisiveness of the public discourse, it is only natural that workforces too become extreme in their views.
Thus, the HRM challenge is to channelise the dissent and debate to productive ends. In our working experience, we have found that dissent over the organisational policies and the direction that it is taking often leads to Groups and Factions where employees with similar views often coalesce around alternate power centres.
This can be avoided if they are allowed to voice their opinions in official media. This is the reason why many corporates often have a separate time slot in official gatherings for employees to ask questions that are then answered by the powers that be.
In a similar manner, discussions over larger political and social issues too can be allowed in a controlled manner that is then regulated and at the same time, lets the employees give free vent to their views.
Last, like in the real world, dissent finds a way if it is suppressed and hence, it is our argument that there should be a space for the same before it tears the organisational fabric.
There are ways and means in which Free Speech can be allowed without harm and this then, is the approach that we suggest HR managers to recommend and implement in their organisations.
To conclude, given the negativity in the world around us, it is in the interest of organisations to not let it damage them and instead, make workplaces positive through reasoned debate and discussion.
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