To speak or not to speak on social issues

Lessons for leaders from the Manly Sea Eagles and the IABC World Conference

When travelling overseas with my son and elderly parents two years ago, I wanted to invite them into an airline lounge for some comfort ahead of a long-haul flight from LAX to Australia.

While I am able to bring a guest and up to two children into the lounge, I was not permitted to bring my parents and son – even though the number of guests would be no different to that permitted under the terms of the membership. I could bring one parent, but not the other. Nor was I able to purchase a guest pass.

These are the terms of the lounge membership. On the one hand, fair enough.

However, this particular airline had, in the preceding years, been making a point of its commitment to diversity and inclusion and leveraging it to build brand equity.

Yet, in its terms and conditions, there was no recognition of families like mine who sit outside the traditional concept of a “nuclear family”.

This airline is not the only company where I’ve come up against these idealised notions that aren’t applicable to all. The reason this incident is memorable is because of the public stance of its CEO on matters of diversity and inclusion – and because, to me, its actions do not align with its words.

The recent Manly Sea Eagles pride jersey crisis has been a valuable wake-up call for organisations to take care of their own backyard before going public with statements of support – be they in the form of words, gestures or symbols – on social issues.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, a national rugby league (NRL) team based in Sydney decided its players would wear a jersey bearing rainbow stripes as symbolic of inclusion and diversity; inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as other marginalised groups.

This was notable given that the team, and indeed the league, has no current openly gay or gender diverse players.

An initiative with a noble aim, it fell apart in the execution, with seven players refusing to play in the pride jersey for cultural and/ or religious reasons, exacerbating the very issue it sought to address: diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Six of those players were of Pasifika origin.

Prior to the jersey being introduced, the Sea Eagles players were not consulted, nor did the club have prior open discussions around issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Others, including the coach, have commented on the lack of consultation and poor decision-making and execution.

At the core of this poor decision-making was the failure to communicate with key internal stakeholders critical to the success of the initiative – and importantly – a failure to listen. Had the club done this, it would have been patently clear that it was not ready as an organisation to take this public position.

The way in which the pride jersey saga played out in the public sphere has likely exacerbated the sense of exclusion from NRL culture for those in the community to whom the rainbow flag, and its colours, carry great significance.

With activism on social issues, including employee, investor and consumer activism, on the rise, questions of whether, and when, to lend a corporate or CEO’s voice to a social issue are increasingly important, complex and prevalent ones.

The closing speaker at this year’s IABC world conference in New York, CEO of Edelman USA, Lisa Osborne Ross, offered some valuable guidance in terms of questions for CEOs and organisations to consider in deciding whether or not to support activism on a social issue:

  • Is your signature/name additive? Does it matter whether you sign or not? Is lending your voice or your brand to this saying the same thing that everyone else’s support has said? Or does it say something different?
  • Do you have a point of view that is relevant to this conversation?
  • Are you credible? Have you earned the right to speak on these things?
  • Don’t have FOMO – just because you see everybody else doing it, if it’s not right for you then don’t do it.

Central to Osborne’s counsel was that when you lend your voice to a social issue you must make a commitment. It’s not just words or a letter. It’s the action that takes place after that, that is important. Unless your organisation is willing and able to follow up on that commitment – don’t do it.

In light of the recent Manly Sea Eagles’ experience, to Osborne’s observations I would add:

  • What is the context? What challenges of marginalisation and/or intersectionality impact on whether or not to support activism on a social issue? What are the various dimensions of the issue on which you are making a stance, and are you prepared to follow through on them?
  • What are the perspectives of all your stakeholders, not just a selective few, whose support is critical to your credibility on the issue?

While the Manly Sea Eagles “support” of pride may have been additive, and it arguably did say “something different”, where things started to fall apart was on the question of credibility.

The fact that seven players chose to not wear the pride jersey clearly demonstrates there is much work to be done at the club before it can credibly take this public stance.

Similarly, the FOMO point is a “watch out” issue, not just for Manly, but the NRL itself, which has flagged the possibility of a pride round next year. Just because other football leagues might be ready to host pride matches or pride rounds doesn’t mean the NRL is.

Six of the seven Manly players who refused to play in the pride jersey were of Pasifika origin. There are many Pasifika players across the clubs in the NRL competition. Many of them hold strong religious views that are central to their identity. To coerce or force them into doing something they are fundamentally opposed to on the basis of their religious beliefs runs counter to the very thing that the pride jersey seeks to address: diversity, equity and inclusion.

DEI is not a homogenous, monodimensional issue. There are complex matters of marginalisation and intersectionality that need to be considered when considering DEI and anti-discrimination efforts, many of which do not always fit neatly with each other or apply equally across different groups of people. Donning a pride jersey won’t be enough to change attitudes or biases. Culture programs that foster respect, acceptance and welcome for all might.

DEI policy and initiatives need to be informed by those with lived experience – including from external consultants if that is not available internally – and in that process, the views of all team members need to be heard in an honest and culturally and psychologically safe environment.

Achieving true diversity, equity and inclusion requires us to embrace and welcome people who are different to us with different views and lived experiences. These differences will not always align neatly with each other, and those complexities need to be identified and navigated in a respectful way. This can be uncomfortable – that’s the point. It’s why policies and activism are needed and are not fixed at a point in time, but must be constantly re-examined and developed.

The Sea Eagles saga is one of loss – not only for the club, but for the potential good this initiative could have done. But if there is anything to be salvaged from this, it is to not lose sight of the lesson.

The Sea Eagles’ coach took an important first step when he admitted to, and apologised for, the mistake, noting the failure to first consult. But, as a society, we have a lot further to go to truly understand diversity, equity and inclusion – particularly, marginalisation and intersectionality. The saga demonstrates the pitfalls of getting caught up on “single” issues that advance the rights of one marginalised group, over those of another.

Organisations need to take pause and carefully consider the implications of taking a public stand on a social issue.

An informed and sophisticated understanding of context, DEI, marginalisation and intersectionality needs to play a role in deciding whether or not to speak up. Organisations need to carefully listen to and understand their people. The risks and readiness of lending their voice need to be identified and evaluated. Ultimately – they need to walk their talk.

By Monika Lancucki and Pesel & Carr