Updated May 2, 2024 - Business

Pro-Palestinian protests push corporate activism limits

Illustration of six word balloons, three with the Israeli flag in them, and three with the Palestinian flag in them.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Corporate America is lowering its tolerance for activism that is considered too aggressive or disruptive for the workplace.

Why it matters: This sets a precedent that could prove tricky to enforce as the U.S. enters a tense election season full of divisive issues.

Driving the news: About 50 Google employees were fired last week for participating in pro-Palestinian protests that violated the workplace code of conduct.

  • In a note to employees, CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged Google's "culture of vibrant, open discussion," but said workplace policies and expectations "are clear: this is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform, or to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics."
  • In response, some of the fired employees have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming unlawful retaliation, per the AP.

The big picture: There isn't a silver bullet for avoiding the current polarized environment — particularly when it comes to the Israel-Hamas war, said Dan Doherty, BCW executive vice president and corporate affairs practice lead.

  • "CEOs and company leadership need to find a way to be more comfortable being uncomfortable, [because] you can't be everything to everybody," Doherty said. "And if you try, you're going to put the brand at risk. So you really do need to know where to show up, why to show up there and then communicate that clearly."

Zoom in: Increasingly, the way to show up is with internal communications.

  • The corporate communicators Axios spoke to said their executives regularly engage in constructive conversations through employee resource groups, and some said peaceful protests would be tolerated.
  • However, similar to the line being drawn by academic institutions, the communicators said action will be taken once the activism becomes disruptive to work or creates a hostile environment for employees.

Zoom out: Google's decision provides cover for other companies navigating similar challenges, and many are using the opportunity to remind employees of their internal codes of conduct.

  • "Having policies and procedures in place and making sure that those are communicated so employees understand workplace expectations is where [leaders] should be focused," said Doherty.
  • And even if the conflict in Gaza isn't causing tension in a workplace, other issues are likely percolating.

In anticipation, communicators are partnering closely with HR reps to monitor internal Slack channels or employee groups to ensure workplace policies are respected.

  • They are also increasingly enforcing these policies — through warnings, suspensions or, in extreme cases, firings.

What they're saying: "What we're seeing is the end of a cycle, which started with the employee walkouts of the Trump era, peaked after the summer of 2020 and seems to have ground to a halt after Oct. 7," says Steve Hirsch, CEO of strategic communications firm Hirsch Leatherwood.

What to watch: By enacting more stringent workplace codes of conduct, leaders set a precedent ahead of a polarized election season, and it will be interesting to see how consistent employers are when enforcing these policies.

Go deeper: Google's idyllic campus image shattered by protester firings

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