Controversial clients and the new office politics

Agency employees are rebelling against controversial clients. And there's a right way to handle it, says Rum Ekhtiar, founder of Rum and Co.

Employees, supporters and journalists gather as workers walked out of work at Wayfair in Brunswick. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Employees, supporters and journalists gather as workers walked out of work at Wayfair in Brunswick. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about agencies with controversial and politicized clients. Edelman and Geo Group. Ogilvy and Customs and Border Protection. We live in a hyperpolarizing time when these sorts of conflicts seem unavoidable.

While many companies have policies that discourage talking politics at work, these disputes go far beyond politics. These latest controversies are valuable reminders of the fundamental importance of employee communications, transparent leadership and unified cultures.

Here are five steps you should take when approach this challenge:

Do some soul-searching. Some agencies don’t like working with big oil or tobacco or companies that use plastic straws. Business leaders need to take a moment and think about how they can balance profits with the values of employees and clients. It’s all about defining your values and ensuring they’re aligned with the beliefs of your employees. Because if they aren’t, you risk losing talent.

Online retailer Wayfair sold $200,000 worth of furniture to BCFS, a government contractor that manages migrant facilities where children are detained. Employees voiced their concerns about the ethics of the sale and organized a walk-out.

The company ultimately announced a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross, with the intent of helping those in need at the border. However, even that donation was controversial among some employees, with many preferring that the donation be given to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

It was reported that 500 Wayfair employees participated in the walk-out which makes you wonder, what was the true cost of that business decision?

Find your champions. At company headquarters, isolated from the front lines, it’s easy to miss important employee feedback and sentiment. Two-way communication channels are crucial and it’s important to have a network of ambassadors or champions across teams, levels and geographies.

First, the network can help you find out if potential clients will create waves among employees. Second, if you decide to go after the client anyway, the network can help temper the message and gather support.

In the examples I’ve cited, the feedback was leadership was making unilateral decisions and employees weren’t being heard. When employees are part of the decision-making process, they’re more likely to be supportive, or at a minimum, understanding of your decisions.

Be transparent and keep it real. In Edelman’s case, employee opposition spread via Fishbowl which is public, emails that were leaked and staff conversations. In the age of social media, your workforce is more empowered and vocal than ever before. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can keep these decisions quiet.

The key to employee engagement is treating your employees like consumers. Consumers don’t want to do business with shady companies. And increasingly, purpose-driven companies are seeing higher ROI and greater consumer affinity. Employers should be striving for the same outcomes with their employees.

If you make a client choice that does not align with some team member’s values, be transparent. Explain your decision and let employees know that they’ve been heard and that you value their opinions. It engenders loyalty and mutual respect.

Be prepared for push back. Even if you do the right thing and communicate effectively, there will likely still be individuals who won’t buy what you’re selling. That’s okay.

This whole exercise should ladder up to who you want to be as a company or agency. If you are okay with working for big tobacco and it aligns with your company’s values, then you need to recognize that some employees won’t share that point of view.

It’s imperative that those employees are allowed to express their points of view — at the right time and place — and that those views are respected.

Please note, I didn’t say agreed with. If you don’t agree with their position, then ultimately you, and those employees will need to decide if your organization is the right place for them.

The final tally. Mistakes and bad decisions may be made but what matters most is how you handle it and how you communicate with your teams. Only then will you know if you still have their vote. And if you don’t, that’s ok too.

Rum Ekhtiar is the founder of Rum and Co. He can be reached at Rum@rumandco.nyc.

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