The most innovative people are often dissenters. They drive growth and change precisely because they’re not afraid to challenge the status quo.
But instead of welcoming people who inspire change, some major corporations are punishing employees for the opinions they voice in their personal time.
Jennifer Sey, former Global Brand President at Levi’s, was forced out of her role for speaking out against public school COVID lockdown policies, affecting her own children, on her own time and in her personal capacity.
Sey had worked at Levi’s for over 20 years and was on track to become the next CEO of Levi’s. Under her leadership, Levi’s stock prices had doubled and by the fall of 2021, revenue had returned to pre-pandemic levels.
But it was Sey’s personal advocacy for her own children’s education that wound up drawing the ire of her long-time co-workers. As a mom of four and a long-time champion for children, Jennifer was concerned when she heard that public schools in San Francisco would remain closed for the 2020-2021 school year while private schools opened. Jennifer believed this policy was harmful, especially for disadvantaged children, and was not afraid to stand up for what she believed.
Outside of work, Sey spoke out in the media, social media, and in town hall meetings — never in her capacity as a member of Levi’s leadership team, but always as a mother concerned for her children’s well-being.
Though formerly tolerant of Sey’s political advocacy — including her past support for Democratic candidates – Levi’s tolerance reached an abrupt limit when her opinions contradicted what was then the entrenched orthodoxy on COVID lockdown policies. Sey was shamed and called “racist” in company-wide meetings for her views on COVID lockdowns, and was pressured by Levi’s Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to do an “apology tour.” Not only that, but Sey was also warned by company leadership to avoid mentioning the 2021 California gubernatorial recall election on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Jennifer noticed that her colleagues’ posts about the need to oust Trump in November elections went unnoticed. Ultimately, Jennifer was informed that her social media presence was “too problematic” for her to advance to the CEO position at Levi’s. Many companies applaud themselves for creating an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to work. But they won’t accomplish that goal by picking and choosing which political views their employees are allowed to express in their personal time, treating some employees worse according to their political views expressed outside of work.
Unfortunately, Sey’s experience is part of broader trend. A 2020 Cato National Survey found that nearly a third of employed Americans across party lines — 31 percent of liberals, 30 percent of moderates and 34 percent of conservatives — were afraid that sharing their views would put their jobs in jeopardy. Many Americans feel that they have to self-censor just to make a living. And the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index, which evaluated 50 Fortune 1000 companies, discovered that most of these major corporations fail to welcome true diversity by protecting their employees’ free speech rights.
Companies shouldn’t be treating some of their employees worse than others based on the political views they express outside of work. Companies can take concrete steps to show their commitment to their employees’ rights — and the company’s overall wellbeing — by adopting an Off-Duty Civil Rights Policy and a Viewpoint Diversity Policy. Protecting the free speech rights of every employee, regardless of ideological or religious differences, allows for healthy collaboration that drives success within companies.
In addition to protecting the fundamental freedoms of their workforce, companies should also take into consideration the business potential of honoring — rather than opposing — employees with unique points of view like Jennifer Sey.
Companies that embrace viewpoint diversity are better equipped to serve people with diverse values, recruit and retain top talent, build trust with key stakeholders, and promote a culture of respect and civil discourse.
As Viewpoint Diversity Score Advisory Council member John Siverling has written, “the best way to innovate is to allow for (no, proactively seek out) diversity in ideas to compete in a free market.”
Siverling, who serves as Director of Private Markets and Impact Advocacy for OneAscent, and President of OneAscent Capital, went on to warn that for companies, the lack of viewpoint diversity impacts a great number of business decisions, including “portfolio composition, stock market participation, analysts’ forecasting behavior, corporate social responsibility, and corporate policy decisions.”
Every American employee should be free to express their views on their personal time without fear of unjust punishment from their employer. Companies don’t have to view differences of opinion as threats; instead, they should embrace them as unique strengths.