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POLITICS OF SILENCE

Why Meta is wrong to ban abortion conversations at work

Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
The logo of Meta Platforms is seen in Davos, Switzerland, May 22, 2022. Picture taken May 22, 2022.
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Update: On June 24, 2022 the US Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, writing that “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.”

Meta doesn’t want employees talking about abortion at work. The company told employees last week that they should refrain from discussing reproductive rights on Workplace, the company’s internal chat system.

“Even if people are respectful, and they’re attempting to be respectful about their view on abortion, it can still leave people feeling like they’re being targeted based on their gender or religion,” Meta’s head of HR, Janelle Gale, told employees in a recording obtained by The Verge.

At the crux of Meta’s policy is the desire to avoid a hostile work environment. As the public awaits the US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, many other employers may be feeling similarly anxious about escalating internal tensions. But they should avoid following Meta’s example of introducing abortion-specific speech policies that alienate employees even as they claim to be acting in the interests of an accepting work culture.

“I absolutely understand why they need to have a policy around divisiveness, psychological safety, bullying, harassing language, all of those sorts of things,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of the book The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. “But the fact that they would call out one issue—to me, it seems that they themselves are being divisive on this.”

Changing norms around politics in the workplace

Companies have the legal right to restrict what employees can talk about at work. Many do so in the form of familiar policies such as hate-speech bans or non-disclosure agreements.

It’s less common for companies to bar employees from conversing about politics and social issues. In fact, in the wake of covid-19, police brutality, the #MeToo movement, and the Donald Trump era, it’s become increasingly popular for companies to try to engage workers in conversations about social justice in an effort to recognize the ways that issues like racism inevitably impact employees’ work and personal lives.

The software company Basecamp and cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase bucked that trend in recent years, creating rules intended to foreclose political conversations at work. This prompted some employees to resign in protest. But Facebook seems to be unique in permitting conversations about other social topics—like LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter—while explicitly barring talk about abortion.

Meta’s silence as a political choice

There are a number of potential problems with Meta’s conversation ban on abortion.

First, current and prospective employees may feel that singling out abortion actually more closely identifies Facebook with the issue. “It’s risky to call attention specifically to one topic, because then you are going to become a lightning rod for this topic,” Davey says. Now “people are going to decide how they feel about working at Facebook as an employer” based on this policy.

Moreover, when companies stay silent on abortion—as a whopping 177 out of 200 companies did in a recent Fast Company survey—it doesn’t necessarily come across as neutral. There’s a reason why reproductive rights advocates are pushing employers to speak up about abortion access as it relates to their gender equality commitments, while anti-abortion types often support companies keeping mum. “It is generally a mistake for corporate leaders to wade into political issues,” the chair of an anti-abortion group recently told The New York Times.

When companies peddle conversational bans as the solution to tensions over abortion, they wind up perpetuating the stigma that surrounds the procedure, implying that it’s such a taboo, third-rail issue that it can’t possibly be discussed openly.

Preserving psychological safety in the workplace

That’s not to suggest that companies can, or should, actively encourage employees to debate abortion with one another. Davey thinks that realistically, colleagues with differing opinions will have a hard time talking about abortion with one another respectfully.

“I just cannot imagine at this time in our society that anybody who is on either side of that issue will actually want to listen and hear and make the other person feel respected and understood,” she says.

But Davey says the best practice for employers going forward is to create guidelines that emphasize the importance of preserving colleagues’ sense of psychological safety when political and social issues inevitably arise in the workplace. Rather than bar discussion of controversial  topics, she says, employers should convey that “in cases where expressing strong personal opinions that are not related to our business could threaten people’s sense of being a part of our community, that’s not welcome here.”

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