How to mandate corporate values without overstepping: a look at WeWork How to mandate corporate values without overstepping: a look at WeWork

Last month, news broke that WeWork, the co-working giant, would no longer serve red meat or poultry at company events or allow employees to expense meals including meat. Weeks later, businesssustainability and culture critics continue to express strong views for and against the new policy, with many doubting WeWork’s true motivations. 

In light of research which suggests that avoiding meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” to reduce an individual’s environmental impact, WeWork’s vegetarian policy will surely reduce the company’s carbon footprint. But alongside discussions of how best companies can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, WeWork’s policy move has also sparked a necessary debate around how a company can “live their values” without encroaching on the lifestyles or identities of their employees.

The personal, while perhaps political, is still personal...

Much of the controversy surrounding WeWork’s new policy has focused on the company’s attempt to impose its values on employees. In doing so, WeWork joins a growing list of companies, including IBM and GE who have tried to mandate company values through employee policies, often with mixed results.

While there are many similarities between these examples and WeWork’s vegetarian policy, there’s one noteworthy difference: for many of us, food represents far more than sustenance, it symbolizes culture, identify, family or even love. These topics reside well beyond an employer’s domain, which might explain why Google employees rebelled after an ill-fated attempt at “Meatless Mondays.”

There’s no doubt that this vegetarian policy will reduce WeWork’s carbon footprint – and the company should be applauded for their desire to do so. But research has shown that while a plant-based diet is best for the envi­ronment, meat can still be a part of a healthy and eco-friendly diet, depending on the type and quantity consumed and how it is produced. And, as many have pointed out, including Felix Salmon at Slate, there are far less personally-invasive approaches the company could have considered (even to impact employees’ eating habits) that would have met the same objective.

For a company with no public sustainability strategy or disclosure of sustainability performance, a ban on meat seems an odd place to start. Shortly after the vegetarian policy, WeWork announced Zero Plastic, an effort to eliminate single use plastic (e.g. plastic cups, water bottles and straws) from its spaces. WeWork has now enacted its first two global environmental policy mandates, but the company has yet to address their greatest impact on the environment. With 10 million square feet of office space managed in 76 cities around the world, the lion’s share of WeWork’s environmental impact comes from its building spaces, as buildings account for 38% of all CO2 emissions. The most meaningful step towards environmental sustainability the company could take would be to confine itself to buildings with sound policies related to energy-efficiency, water and waste management, but they have yet to do so.

The way you do one thing is the way you do everything

According to Bloomberg’s reporting, the new vegetarian policy was communicated to employees via a company-wide email from Miguel McKelvey, co-founder and chief culture officer. Such an impersonal and top-down communications approach could signal a lack of employee engagement and empowerment within the company. While a company-wide mandate is an appropriate response to certain critical issues, in these instances in particular, extensive employee buy-in and collaboration is a must at every stage.  

While WeWork may have hoped for this new policy to communicate its commitment to environmental sustainability, that’s not the only message it sent. Whether intended or not, the policy also sends the message that omnivores are not welcome among the company’s ranks. Such a stance is not only unprecedented for a company of WeWork’s size and scale, it also comes as a surprise at a time when most companies are striving for greater inclusivity.

Unlike a ban on plastic bottles or color printing, a policy of this nature runs the risk of encroaching on employees’ personal values and lifestyles. When developing and communicating a potentially controversial policy change, soliciting employee feedback and demonstrating sensitivity towards their personal views is crucial.

How to mandate corporate values without overstepping

  • Lead with open dialogue– Host town hall meetings, all-staff company calls or other open forums that give all employees the opportunity to express their concerns or reservations about the proposed policy change. In addition to making employees feel heard, the tenor and tone of these discussions will provide a useful gauge for how (and even if) the policy change will move forward.

  • Enable employees to provide feedback anonymously– Outside of the open forums suggested above, also create opportunities for employees to provide feedback anonymously. This step is particularly crucial for policy changes that may clash with employees’ personal views.

  • Empower employees in decision making– Seek input from employees at all levels, backgrounds and geographies, as relevant, in the policy development process. A relatively homogeneous leadership team is less likely to recognize cultural, racial or religious insensitivities within a new policy.

  • Start with a pilot– It’s generally best to avoid sweeping, overnight policy changes, particularly if you anticipate a mixed reception. That’s why we recommend a phased approach that enables employees to provide input at key phases of the policy rollout.

  • Schedule regular check-ins– After the pilot has ended, give employees the opportunity to weigh in before determining if the new policy will remain in effect. If the policy does stay in place, create a mechanism for employees to provide ongoing input.

Miguel McKelvey has described WeWork’s police change as “multi-dimensional...We’re coming at it from an awareness and a mindfulness perspective.” Few would argue that the move has successfully raised awareness about the environmental impact of meat consumption. While the company’s true motivations are still in question, they’ve certainly sparked a necessary debate around the fine line employers must walk when mandating company values.

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