- Meta is limiting employee conversations about abortion on its internal platforms.
- At the same time, Meta states that it creates open spaces for employees to express themselves.
- CEO consultants and business professors say Meta's decision was a mistake.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
There are certain things you just can't talk about at work. At Meta, that now includes abortion.
Facebook's parent company is directing employees against widely sharing their opinions about abortion on the job. But staying quiet is a tough sell for some workers at a platform that one of every three people on the planet uses to communicate. Ethics professors and business consultants also warn that it's a short-sighted request for leaders of any company to make.
Limiting worker conversations on sensitive issues could chip away at employee morale and even innovation, because workers might be less willing to share their thoughts in an environment they don't believe supports them.
According to The New York Times, Meta — which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp — sent a message to employees that underscored the "strong guardrails around social, political and sensitive conversations" at work. The move followed last month's Supreme Court decision that threw out nearly 50 years of constitutional protections for abortion.
The policy at Meta removes public employee posts on the company's internal platform with keywords like "abortion" and "Roe v Wade." Meta allows employees to talk about the topic only in private forums with up to 20 people, the Times said.
"While it's theoretically each company's right to decide how to handle workplace conversations, this is still some version of censorship any way you look at it," Eric Yaverbaum, a Fortune 500 CEO-communications consultant, told Insider. "Employees are going to justifiably feel that they are being silenced and that their voices don't matter. Some may think they are just cogs in Meta's machine."
A decision with repercussions
At least one Facebook employee has spoken out publicly against the policy.
"Today is a massive regression in women's rights (and human rights) for the United States," Ambroos Vaes, a software engineer at Meta, wrote in a now-deleted June 25 Linkedin post. "What saddens me as well is that internally at Meta we are not allowed to discuss it."
Meta did not respond to Insider's request for comment. In a previous statement, the company said it plans to reimburse travel expenses for employees who need to access out-of-state reproductive care.
The tech behemoth isn't the first company to monitor and control employee conversation around political issues and face pushback for it. In September 2020, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of the cryptocurrency company Coinbase, announced that employees should not take political stances at work. Not everyone agreed.
At Basecamp — a project-management tech company — Jason Fried, the CEO, barred employees from speaking out about social or political issues in company forums in April 2021. At least 20 people, more than one-third of Basecamp's roughly 60 employees at the time, accepted severance packages from the company.
Some experts argue that a company should, of course, prohibit hate speech or harassment, but that it should not stop difficult conversations from taking place. Maurice Schweitzer, a business-management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said he understands the intention of trying to create a peaceful work environment, but thinks Meta's policy is "a mistake."
"I appreciate that Meta is trying to create a workplace with less friction and less conflict, but this isn't the right way to do that," he said. "Ultimately they're going to be stuck with employees who feel censored, monitored, and muzzled by this policy."
Yaverbaum agreed, calling Meta's policy "extreme."
"Americans are kinda big on the First Amendment and the right to our unique freedom of speech, and now the boss is going to tell you what you can and cannot talk about?" said Yaverbaum. "I'll make a wild guess that won't work out so well for anyone."
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a leadership professor at the Yale School of Management and a "CEO whisperer" who consults with corporate chiefs on important issues, doesn't agree with Meta's policy.
"It's well-intentioned, but misguided. Companies should never be predatory in limiting speech," Sonnenfeld said.
Silence can be at odds with company policies
Other business experts said that while CEOs are free to ban political conversation, leaders should show consistency with other company policies. For example, Basecamp does not take political stances except on ones that directly affect its business, and it prohibits employee discussions about such issues on company platforms. Therefore, according to John Hasnas, a professor of ethics at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, both policies are consistent and not a problem.
But Meta's policies are not aligned in this case, Hasnas suggested, and that's an issue.
Meta, by the nature of its social-media products, facilitates conversations. Billions of people share ideas, debate topics, and connect on issues important to them through Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. In addition, the tech giant positions itself as a global leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion that espouses the virtue of connection and differences. Its leaders have commented on a number of social issues, ranging from racial justice to climate change.
"There can be no equality without diversity and inclusivity. That's why we're dedicated to creating a future where every employee feels seen, heard and valued," Meta's website reads.
Hasnas said that a company shouldn't single out one issue as being off limits, and that all political issues require consistency.
"If a company says, 'We want the most open environment we can have. We want you to really relate to each other. Talk about anything you want,' and then they say, 'No, but don't talk about abortion,' then that's problematic," Hasnas said.
According to Schweitzer, to create a peaceful work environment, leaders shouldn't muzzle employees, but instead should hold mediated face-to-face conversations, moderated town-hall meetings, or listening sessions. He called it "ironic" that Meta was the first major employer to roll out such a policy, noting how its platforms aspire to promote free speech. He added that he wouldn't be surprised if Meta reversed the policy.
"I think by actually having conversations, we're likely to find that there's actually more common ground with people with different opinions than we initially think," Schweitzer said. "These conversations can help us build those bridges and learn from each other.