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How better governance supports employees amid controversial social issues

By John Jones and Rachael McCann Jones | March 6, 2023

Divisive social issues impacting employee health like abortion and LGBT+ rights require strong governance based on corporate values and purpose.
ESG and Sustainability|Health and Benefits|Inclusion-and-Diversity|Ukupne nagrade |Benessere integrato

Social issues will continue to have business implications as employers are pressed to make decisions about the support they provide to protect employees’ health and wellbeing rights. Although navigating difficult (and often political) issues has become more common for organizations – from George Floyd to COVID-19, to LGBT+ support and rights – having to deal with a divisive issue that directly impacts employee health is otherwise highly unusual.

Two examples of political issues impacting employee health that employers are dealing with are LGBT+ and women’s rights. It is difficult for organizations that value diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives to ignore critical social issues that may impact employee wellbeing.

  • Last year, states filed a record number of anti-LGBT+ bills: 233 in 2022 versus 41 bills in 2018. Many of the bills are about gender-affirming healthcare.
  • Meanwhile, the Dobbs decision (Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization), which overturned Roe v. Wade’s abortion rights protections, has put U.S. employers in a rare and potentially difficult position.

Navigating a patchwork of laws and regulations

Both issues create a state-by-state or market-by-market patchwork of legislation and regulation that directly impacts employee health, creating a number of key challenges. The complexity of being a multi-state employer in managing benefits and maintaining compliance in an unsettled world has significant implications.

Very few organizations were prepared for how the Dobbs decision might affect them. They didn’t have a governance structure to thoughtfully address questions and concerns or make decisions longer-term on how the organization should react. Therefore, a strong governance structure centered around company values and purpose can help organizations navigate controversial social issues negatively impacting the employee experience.

In the August 2022 WTW Post Dobbs Decision Survey, 82% of employers with self-insured plans said they will cover elective abortions in 2023 where permitted; this increased to 93% for fully insured plans. Additionally, 33% of companies offer travel and lodging benefits for both abortion services and other procedures today. Sixty-five percent of respondents intend to expand travel benefits for abortion services or for any other medical procedures due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Organizations that value DEI and ESG initiatives must address these critical social issues or risk challenges. If they don’t, they risk difficulty retaining and attracting employees. So how does an organization determine what to say? Who to say it about? And when? And by whom?

5 things to consider in creating greater governance

  1. 01

    Have a defined process with identified, diverse stakeholders

    As decisions need to be made in response to social changes, it is important to have a process that incorporates administration, cost, operations and risk, and aligns with DEI, wellbeing, ESG and employee experience strategies.

    This governance structure should be formalized with a governance philosophy and guiding principles against which changes should be compared. It should also include the practicality of how it will work when there are state or municipal (and country) variances.

    You should also address the diversity of who is making the decisions (or the governing committee), including diversity of roles as well as visible and invisible diversity reflective of the workforce.

    • 73% of employers identified DEI as the number one external factor influencing benefits, according to WTW’s 2021 Benefit Trends Survey, U.S.
    • 83% of senior executives place reputational risk as a top five risk across their companies, and 77% are not fully confident in their company’s reputational and ESG “risk readiness,” according to WTW’s Reputation Risk Readiness Survey.
  2. 02

    Get employee insights

    Determine what employees care about. What is on their minds? Are the changes you are considering in alignment, or will the company be viewed as out of touch? An ongoing listening approach ensures a proper alignment with employees’ wants and needs and supports a positive employee experience in an environment where employees can thrive.

    • 62% of employees who indicate social issues are important to them and rate their employer efforts as poor would leave for a 5% pay increase (versus 41% of those who rate efforts very good), according to WTW’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey. Similarly, 69% who believe DEI is important and rate their employers as poor would leave (versus 36% who rate efforts as very good).
  3. 03

    Coordinate with all the players

    As changes are considered, whether through a vendor or internal administration, mechanics matter. Create a coordinated plan defining how a change will be implemented, roles and responsibilities for making the change, what vendors the organization is responsible for, and how the change will be accessible to employees. Company approach will vary by its values, geographic footprint, vendors, administration, compliance requirements, and the level of consistency required globally or across locations.

  4. 04

    Communicate, educate and train

    It is not enough to push the “easy button” and just implement a change. Particularly when changes to employee benefits or total rewards are made for social, DEI or ESG alignment, it’s critical to have clarity of what the change is, what it isn’t, where to learn more and whom to contact for further information. Within the communication strategy, defining who various messages are intended for is as important as compliance and legal considerations.

    Internally, integrated messages accompanied by images that resonate with a diverse workforce are critical, as is clear manager and leader guidance with related talking points. Consider additional employee training for particularly sensitive topics. For some companies, there will also be external communication about the change.

  5. 05

    Measure what matters

    Focus on analytics that go beyond usage to incorporate employee listening and determine if the change is having the impact intended. Are the benefits used, and are there differences by location or other variables? What about outcomes (which for benefits may be health-focused)? Do the changes support employee attraction and retention? Are they supporting or detrimental to the employee value proposition and workforce strategy? And what impact is the change having on the employee experience?

Employers have risen to the occasion when faced with social issues in the past. As new challenges develop and unfold, employers that value DEI and ESG and have good governance centered around their values and purpose will do so again to support and protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.


Managing Director, Employee Experience Business Leader, North America
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Senior Director, Integrated & Global Solutions,
Global DEI Solutions Leader
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