How To Keep Your Corporation Out of the Culture War
Eight steps business leaders can take to prevent ideological pressure and political conformity in the workplace.
Jon and Greg wrote an afterword for The Coddling of the American Mind in the summer of 2021 to be added to a second edition of the book in 2022, but it grew so long that it would have raised the page count and cost of the book substantially. Instead, the nine sections of the afterword will be released in separate parts. The first five are linked below. In this latest part, the authors discuss how ideas about emotional safety that emerged on university campuses have migrated into the workplace.
Sections from the new afterword to “The Coddling of the American Mind” previously published by FIRE and Persuasion:
Part 3: Increasing Persecution on Campus
Part 4: The Polarization Spiral
Part 5: International Coddling
After our book The Coddling of the American Mind came out in 2018, business leaders from the corporate and non-profit sectors began contacting us about internal issues they are having with recent hires. They told us that their youngest employees show increased levels of anxiety, depression, and fragility; a tendency to turn ordinary conflicts between co-workers into major issues requiring the attention of the Human Resources Department; and greater insistence that the organization must share and express their personal political values related to social justice.
In short: Beginning around 2018, parts of the corporate world began to experience the same changes we saw in universities from around 2014. This makes sense once you realize that members of Gen Z began to arrive on campuses in 2013 and 2014—they spent four years within institutions that largely catered to their new needs and demands, and began to graduate from four-year colleges around 2017 or 2018.
A 2021 survey found that 48% of Gen Z respondents reported feeling stress all or most of the time, and the top source of worry among them was career prospects. As for the increased internal conflicts and tensions among employees, the title of a 2021 article on the front page of the business section of The New York Times sums it up well: “The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them.” Friction and punishment campaigns in the corporate world seem to be hypercharged by Slack and other internal company messaging platforms.
The turmoil at The New York Times in 2020 offers multiple case studies of personal and political conflicts intermixing, as individual journalists ran afoul of the new sensibilities. Bari Weiss, a staff editor and Op-Ed writer, resigned in July 2020. In her resignation letter, Weiss mentioned “constant bullying” and how she was subjected to what one outlet described as “‘Mean Girls’-styled sniping at her in company Slack channels.” Science and health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. resigned in 2021 over criticism of his behavior on a company-sponsored trip to Peru in 2019 (primarily his repeating a racial slur to clarify how it was being used in a story told by a student on the trip). McNeil had already been disciplined for his behavior on the trip, but co-workers, accusing McNeil of racism, complained that he hadn’t been fired. A month after his resignation McNeil wrote, “I’m surprised by how quick some colleagues who barely know me were prepared to accept those accusations and even add more on a Times alumni Facebook page.”
The biggest change in the corporate world has been the explosion of social justice movements, employee political activism, and internal conflict about that activism since 2017, all playing out on social media. To be fair, there was no shortage of issues to be concerned about since that time. In early 2017, Donald Trump implemented restrictive executive orders on immigration that many CEOs opposed. That August, the corporate world reacted to the “Google Memo,” in which an engineer questioned the value of implicit bias training and offered alternative explanations for the gender imbalance in STEM jobs. A week later, the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” march took place. Two months after that, the #MeToo movement gained national attention. A string of police killings of unarmed African Americans, including George Floyd in May 2020, led to a surge of corporate support for the Black Lives Matter movement and employee activism.
But why would Gen Z have any meaningful influence on corporations during this turbulent period—2017 to 2020—when they had just arrived in the workplace and were present only in small numbers? The primary reason comes back, again, to social media. Gen Z is the first generation where a critical mass of young people grew up as social media natives (with a 2018 survey finding 97% on at least one social media platform). This allowed them to organize and mobilize in a way that was simply not available to previous generations. A single employee who is adept at using social media can create a PR nightmare for employers, often leading to nearly instantaneous public capitulation accompanied by a formulaic apology. Social media played a key role in the ouster of James Bennet from The New York Times in the summer of 2020, when many NYT staffers tweeted that he “[put] Black @nytimes staff in danger” by running an op-ed by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton in favor of deploying military force during civil unrest—phrasing they were advised to use by their union due to the existence of employment protections for speech relating to workplace safety.
And social media isn’t the only place Gen Z is willing to take on their co-workers. Human resources is a growing field with expanding influence in modern corporations. Both of us have been told by business leaders that their human resources departments are struggling to keep up with increased utilization of HR by Gen Zers. One contributing factor we hypothesize is that Gen Zers graduating from modern colleges have carried with them an inclination to appeal to intermediary authority in solving conflicts—an inclination which is fostered in K-12 and continues in higher education through systems like Bias Response teams.
But despite these two advantages, we believe the main reason Gen Z wields more influence is because a critical mass of their Millennial bosses and managers are sympathetic to them. Unsurprisingly, for both generations, personal ethics plays a larger role in their decisions about where and how to work.
Five years ago, about three-quarters of Millennials said business was a force for good; at the time, Gen Z made up about five percent of the workforce. Today, Gen Z makes up about a quarter of the workforce, and fewer than half of Millennials say that business is a force for good—bringing them roughly in line with Gen Z. Whether the convergence came about by Gen Z influencing Millennials or because both generations responded in similar ways to the avalanche of social unrest since 2017 is unclear. But either way, Millennials seem to share Gen Z’s skepticism about capitalism, and many of them share a willingness to prioritize social causes over company goals.
Ever since they entered the corporate world in the early 2000s, some members of the Millennial generation (born 1982 to 1996) have pushed for being able to “bring their whole selves to work.” Companies in the creative industries encouraged this shift, erasing boundaries between work life and private life. But as America became ever more politically polarized, the problem with this policy became evident: Some whole selves cannot tolerate working alongside other whole selves that have different political beliefs and voting patterns.
At the same time, the tech booms of the late 1990s and 2000s saw an increased passion for what Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey calls “conscious capitalism”: a desire by founders and CEOs to take a more positive role in social and environmental causes. Both of us have great sympathy for this movement and have been enthusiastic proponents. But in recent years we have seen some significant drawbacks.
One of the most interesting critiques of corporate social justice is Vivek Ramaswamy’s book Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam. Ramaswamy makes a strong case that corporations’ claims to be serving the greater good often hide dishonesty, self-promotion, self-dealing, and even outright corruption. Even when the desires of CEOs and companies are altruistic, Ramaswamy argues that the deviation from their narrow purpose confers more power on corporations than they are supposed to have in democratic society. The limited focus of companies is there in no small part to protect democracy from corporations becoming excessively powerful super-citizens (as Milton Friedman argued in an influential essay back in 1970).
On an everyday level, the move towards corporate social justice and the expectation of company-wide solidarity with specific causes can lead to what has (controversially) been dubbed “cancel culture”. One of its defining patterns is that employees face calls for discipline or termination for expressing non-conforming opinions, even when those opinions are expressed away from the workplace or with no hostile intent. Data scientist David Shor was fired from Civis Analytics for a tweet sharing academic research indicating violent protest decreased votes for Democrats while non-violent protest increased it. Emmanuel Cafferty was fired for even less from his job as a line locator for San Diego Gas and Electric after a passing driver filmed Cafferty’s arm hanging out the window; the driver claimed Cafferty (who is of Mexican descent) was making an “OK” sign, which online trolls have associated with white power ideologies. Cafferty says he was just cracking his knuckles and not making a sign of any kind.
Corporations, of course, have the First Amendment right of association and therefore can decide whom they employ—at least insofar as they comply with anti-discrimination law. Our fear, however, is that if too many corporations see themselves both as businesses and as participants in social movements, then employees who disagree face a stark choice: Keep your mouth shut, or express yourself and face possible termination.
Haidt is the cofounder of Heterodox Academy and Lukianoff is the head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), both of which are mission driven non-profits. For organizations whose telos (goal, end, purpose) is a particular kind of social change, it is mission-consistent to hire and retain people in part because they share the mission. However, if every company becomes like a cause-based non-profit, and decides to enforce ideological conformity—even if their primary function is to create widgets, apps or automobiles—what happens to our pluralistic democracy? If the sanction for dissent is that you become unable to secure desirable employment in your industry, you can see why Ramaswamy was right to be concerned about corporate social justice posing real world threats to democratic participation.
One of Ramaswamy’s solutions is to make political belief a protected class under current law. We fear that this would, in fact, backfire and make the employee activists essentially unfireable even if their activism is harming the company by, for example, driving away talent. Before trying top-down approaches, the first step should be to encourage corporate leaders to reflect upon the long-term risks and benefits from taking stands on political issues not closely related to core business interests.
In the current environment it can be risky for heads of corporations to say no to employee pressure to take public stands. But several are beginning to do so. Cryptocurrency company Coinbase made waves in the tech world last year following a blog post from CEO Brian Armstrong, who pledged that his company would not take a stand on social issues. Armstrong argued that doing so was a distraction and created internal division, citing “internal strife” at Facebook and Google. He offered a severance package to employees who could not countenance working for an apolitical tech company, which was taken by at least 60 employees, about 5% of the company.
It is too soon to know whether the policy has improved morale and productivity at Coinbase or not. But given the tendency of the American culture war to poison ever more aspects of personal and professional life, we think that leaders of all institutions should closely consider the costs of allowing their organizational culture to become what can increasingly feel like just another extension of Twitter.
For companies that wish to hire talent of all political stripes, or to reduce the frequency of campaigns to fire employees for political nonconformity, we offer the following advice.
1. Expand your definition of diversity. While racial diversity and gender expression often dominate what people mean by diversity on campus, for a company trying to serve a diverse market in a fast-changing economic environment, having diversity of opinion, diversity of experience, and diversity of social class and geographic background can be even more important. In fact, the kind of diversity most often found to confer advantages on teams is not demographic diversity but rather diversity of perspectives on topics closely related to the task at hand. This includes both functional diversity (e.g., what roles people play in the company) and political diversity (at least when trying to find truth about politically controversial topics).
2. Reconsider what colleges you hire from. While elite colleges offer the promise of bright and hard-working employees, the problems we covered in our book are generally more severe at elite private colleges. You might want to consider hiring from large state schools, and ones from regions of the country other than the West Coast or Northeast. This will increase your diversity by social class and region, and it may help your organization avoid the elite college groupthink that seems to be damaging some organizations, potentially giving your organization a competitive advantage.
You might want to go still further and consider hiring people who have not attended college at all, if you can put in place standards that still guarantee hard-working employees with relevant skills. We believe that the numbers of bright, hard-working, and talented people choosing to skip college or to learn through a less traditional alternative will increase in the coming years, while the ability of elite college graduates to work well with those who do not share their beliefs will continue to decline.
3. Orientation: Be direct with candidates and new hires. If you decide that you want your organization to be politically neutral or self-consciously politically heterogeneous it’s a good idea to say so in job postings, and to introduce that idea to employees from their very first day. For example, you could state: “Our company’s culture is oriented toward success in our mission, which is [lay out business mission here]. We therefore do not take public stands on issues that are not central to our business mission. If you're not willing to work for such a company, or with people who disagree with you on some of your deepest beliefs, this might not be the right organization for you.”
4. Have a talk with the human resources department. A lot of the problems we see off-campus derive from ever-expanding definitions of harassment and discrimination, some of which come from institutions like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The role that human resources has in preventing sexual or racial harassment is very important, but, unfortunately, similar departments on campus have been misused in order to police the expression of political opinion and ideological non-conformity.
In The Coddling of the American Mind we discussed Manning and Campbell’s idea of moral dependency—that is, the problem of younger people being accustomed to dealing with any difficult interpersonal relationship by appealing to an authority. This makes sense in situations when you’re talking about children; when reaching adulthood, however, students and potential employees should be able to navigate social interactions (even unpleasant but not harassing ones) themselves. Make sure your human resources department understands that employees are expected to deal with each other and navigate a way of getting along, and that they should only come to human resources if it involves something more serious.
5. Survey employees to see if there’s a problem. Conduct anonymous surveys to figure out if employees feel there's a problem with the overall culture and climate, particularly to find out if it is seen as being unwelcoming toward members of any demographic or political group. Don’t rely on your impressions from social media, which are often wildly out of sync with the real distribution of opinions.
6. If a social media firestorm demands that you fire an employee, slow down. If you're in a situation where online mobs are demanding that you get rid of an employee, you have a problem. Sometimes the mob may actually have a point—maybe you have hired somebody who has done unforgivable things that damage your organization’s reputation. However, if that is the case, it will still look that way in two weeks or a month. Have a process in place that slows things down and allows time for careful investigation and due process. Twitter firestorms lose energy quickly so even having just a mandatory two-week cooling off period can get you past the critical period.
7. Don't make firing a first or preferred punishment. If someone has shown extremely poor judgment but has otherwise been an exemplary employee, consider something short of firing. As a society we should revive the virtue of forgiveness, and learn to accept apologies again.
8. Ask yourself "where does this end?" If you have an employee who other employees want terminated, and you do terminate them, you have set a precedent for what counts as a fireable offense. Over time, that line tends to shift in one direction only. Eventually, you may be left only with employees who share a narrow ideology and a punitive orientation toward all but the most doctrinaire speech.
In conclusion: Many of the dynamics we described in The Coddling of the American Mind, which transformed college campuses beginning in 2014, are now spreading rapidly through the corporate world in the U.S. We expect that the other English speaking nations are only a few years behind us.
We predict that internal cross-generational conflicts are going to get much more intense as more of Gen Z joins the Millennial generation and brings its additional concerns about emotional safety and its focus on individual words into the everyday misunderstandings of workplace interactions. We hope that the lessons learned on campus will be helpful for all generations as they navigate this difficult transition.
Jonathan Haidt, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is a co-founder of Heterodox Academy.
Greg Lukianoff is a First Amendment lawyer and president and chief executive of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.