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Outside the Box: Bosses need to talk with employees about abortion and women’s rights. Here’s why yours should.

The Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade has Americans on both sides of the abortion rights issue engulfed in high emotion. There is a lot of conjecture about how companies and their leaders should be speaking out, taking a stand and taking action. But what about “speaking in” to employees?

The Court’s ruling in late June impacts employees in a majority of U.S. states. How should organizational leaders (including many men who are uncomfortable talking about this, yet likely to be economically impacted by the ruling) address employee concerns? What should they do for their employees, and how do they talk about abortion rights when it is seen by some as a private moral issue and by others as a foundational women’s rights and human rights issue? 

We argue that leaders have an obligation to listen and learn from their employees, understand the type of support they need, demonstrate care, empathy and concern through their actions, and engage in public advocacy for those in their organization most likely to be impacted by this issue. Leaders can have their own personal views on this issue (as most people do), while leveraging allyship skills in initiating and mediating conversations about how recent events are impacting employees. 

“ Be tolerant of people’s actions up to the point they take away people’s rights or autonomy. ”

6. Be tolerant, compassionate and civil: In these difficult conversations, groups of people will not agree with your decisions and actions. The paradox of tolerance suggests that we should be tolerant of people’s actions up to the point they take away people’s rights or autonomy — and then we should not be tolerant.

Women and men are both affected by the ability to make an abortion decision. These are difficult and agonizing choices which have long-term consequences that women and men have to live with. Show them compassion. American society and organizations were founded on the concept of civil discourse. Civility is not only a duty to do no harm, but a duty to do good. Leaders of organizations have a duty to do good for people — whether it supports the short-term bottom-line or not.

The Supreme Court’s decision to rescind a longstanding right has shaken Americans, and many people in your company are probably upset and struggling with it. As a leader, you need to show up, listen generously, demonstrate empathy and speak about whether and how your company will support employees and how it will (or will not) take a public stand on the issue of reproductive rights.

W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith are the coauthors of “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace,” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020), and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women,” Harvard Business Review Press, 2019).

Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Smith is an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

More: What percentage of Americans support Roe v. Wade? How people really feel about abortion, according to polls

Also read: 3 things businesses should do to support their workers’ reproductive choices beyond paying for employees’ abortion-related travel expenses

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