In February of this year, Uber was challenged yet again when Susan Fowler, a former employee, accused the company of widespread discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexism. The already beleaguered tech giant, still reeling from the #DeleteUber movement resulting in part from CEO Travis Kalanik’s perceived support of President Trump, sustained yet another blow as the former employee blogged about her time at Uber. Public outrage in the social and news media did not subside even after Uber launched an internal investigation into her allegations, breathing new life into the flagging #DeleteUber movement.
Extensive research has shown that perceived discrimination among employees leads to lower job satisfaction, organizational commitment, more reported grievances against the employer and – as seen in Uber’s case – reputational harm. And yet such behavior remains prevalent in many organizations.
Legal issues aside, how do PR practitioners, the corporate conscience, convince senior management that gender discrimination is simply not good for business? Show them proof that consumers don’t like companies that discriminate against their employees.
In December 2016, well before the Uber crisis, my colleague, Dr. Soojin Kim from Singapore Management University, and I designed a survey to gauge consumers’ reactions to allegations of gender discrimination against companies they patronized. We believe this research is the first to measure consumers’ reactions to workplace gender discrimination.
We surveyed 473 American consumers by asking them to read an ersatz newspaper article reporting alleged gender discrimination by companies of which they were customers (i.e., one of Apple, Nestle, Dell, and Adidas). We found that consumers’ trust in, satisfaction with, commitment to, and loyalty to the company took a significant hit. Further analyses showed that consumers’ world views of how businesses should operate were a key factor in determining how upset they were with the company about the alleged corporate misconduct.
Two key takeaways for public relations practice emerge from this empirical analysis. First, we now have substantive evidence to back up the intuitive conclusion that workplace gender discrimination can have severe consequences, particularly among a consumer company’s customers.
Second, we can quantify that consumers who want companies to place social good over profit will have the most negative reaction to such allegations.
To recover from such crises it is crucial for corporations to display genuine contrition and to make concerted efforts to change such practices. Without such systemic change, companies – especially consumer goods companies and brands – may never be able to regain consumer trust, satisfaction, commitment, and loyalty, particularly as the #woke generation continues to grow and takes greater interest in issues of social justice.
Dr. Arunima Krishna is an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Boston University’s College of Communication. Her research primarily focuses on public perceptions of controversial issues, particularly when corporations are involved. Read about her research on employees’ communication behaviors here and here, and about her work on strategic management of public relations here and here. The study presented above was supported by the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Academic Research Fund, Tier 1 grant.
Click here for the previous column, penned by Justin Joseph and Amy Shanler, Associate Professors of the Practice of Public Relations, which highlighted how the nation’s longest-operating student-run public relations agency is developing tomorrow’s leaders.
Click here for a previous column, penned by Dean Thomas Fielder, which elaborated upon why Boston University decided to offer the world’s first degrees in PR 70 years ago.
Check back on Monday, June 26, for new content from Boston University College of Communication.