5 HR Lessons from Facebook’s Kavanaugh Controversy

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HR is making headlines, with some of the world’s most prominent companies at the center. Though HR departments aren’t always explicitly mentioned, there is a very public demand for better workplaces around the world. Unfortunately, more often than not we’re seeing examples of how big name companies have mishandled employee relations issues like those faced by Uber and Thinx.

Most recently, Facebook has been in the public eye for a number of reasons, the latest of which comes chock-full of valuable lessons for HR professionals. When Facebook executive Joel Kaplan appeared in a photo at the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, employees spoke up. By sitting behind his longtime friend in apparent solidarity, employees argued that the act appeared to be “an endorsement from Facebook itself.” It wasn’t long before employees took to their internal message boards, social media accounts, and employee resource groups (ERGs) to voice their concerns.

The turmoil at Facebook highlights five important takeaways for building a strong and sustainable company culture.

1. Prioritize Company Values

Company values are the driving force behind employee behavior and morale. Rather than serve as just a set of rules, values inspire employees to act according to a set of shared morals. While values at one company may center around speed and agility, another may focus on attention to detail or teamwork. Setting and communicating values aligns the workforce around shared goals and means for achieving them.

In Facebook’s case, employees felt that executive leadership was not aligned with the values that mattered to them. According to the Times, one employee reflected that “[Kaplan’s] seat choice was intentional, knowing full well that journalists would identify every public figure appearing behind Kavanaugh. He knew that this would cause outrage internally, but he knew that he couldn’t get fired for it. This was a protest against our culture, and a slap in the face to his fellow employees.”

HR should work with closely with employees and leadership to create and refine guidelines within the company’s employee handbook and code of conduct to avoid blurred lines if similar issues arise.

2. Solicit Employee Feedback

From the outside looking in, we can see where mistakes were made in the handling of this very sensitive issue. However, the way in which employees voiced their concerns actually highlights the company’s strong culture. Employees had access to internal resources to voice their questions and felt comfortable doing so without fear of repercussion,

According to the Times, “Tweets about Mr. Kaplan at the hearing immediately began circulating among Facebook message boards such as ‘Women @ Facebook,’ a communications chat room called ‘Just Flagging,’ and a group called ‘Wait, what?’ where employees can ask public relations questions.”

Provide employees with an outlet to share their feedback, and then listen. Whether it’s an anonymous email system, a chat group, or the company newsfeed, employees are your greatest resource when it comes to building a better workplace.

3. Respond Thoughtfully 

All too often, HR serves as the mediator between leadership and the broader workforce. While this can be challenging, it’s also a great opportunity to help both sides understand each other’s different perspectives and increase employee trust.

Unfortunately, in the case of Facebook, key figures in the company reacted to the employee dissatisfaction too quickly and had to backpedal. For example, a tenured Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth joined the conversation by responding to the criticism. According to the Times, “Bosworth backpedaled after facing opposition—including from Lori Goler, Facebook’s head of human resources—who said he was dismissing legitimate employee concerns.”

Take the time to really listen to employees before responding, and encourage your leadership to do the same. A thoughtful response will show your workforce that you genuinely care about their concerns and will work with them to find the optimal solution.

4. Understand Compliance

As with most facets of HR, there are important legal considerations to take into account before pursuing any course of action. As the political landscape continues to make headlines, be ready to address instances of internal tensions in your workplace. Know your legal rights as an employer and be aware of any compliance caveats. Though free speech is a national right, if an employee’s off-duty conduct caused a tangible, negative impact on the business, employers typically have the right to terminate them. Don’t make any rash decisions without getting the facts first.

5. Document Everything

Though asking employees to submit a PTO request can seem like a formality, this kind of recordkeeping provides HR with context in times of crisis. Kaplan reportedly responded to employee criticism by saying that he had taken a personal day during the hearing. However, “according to the company’s internal human resources software, [he] had not taken a personal day to attend the hearing. Only later last Thursday did someone at Facebook update the system to say Mr. Kaplan had taken a personal day.”

Though it seems small, this contributed to the employee perception that Kaplan was acting as a representative of the company in his support of Kavanaugh. Documenting everything from time off to employee complaints will help you better understand the big picture should an issue arise.

At its best, HR has the power to give employees a voice and unite teams. In a time when political and social tensions are high, it’s no surprise that good people can butt heads on certain issues. Don’t let workplace conflict poison your work environment. Take note of HR lessons from companies like Facebook and use that to improve employee communication and protect your company culture.

Topics: HR, News, Company Culture

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