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Move Over “Paid Volunteer Time Off”, Here Come “Social Justice Benefits”

Image by Patrick Behn from Pixabay

It’s common for companies to offer Paid Volunteer Time Off (PVTO) as an employee benefit. While many offer eight hours of PVTO some companies offer as much as forty hours a year. There are even some more progressive companies offering what they call “unlimited” PVTO. This shouldn’t be a surprise. With social and environmental issues becoming more front and center in society employees are expecting their employers to sponsor opportunities to solve these critical issues. They’re also expecting more time to do so. And while peaceful protesting can be considered a form of volunteering, companies generally shy away from formally supporting or sponsoring those forms of activism as they can be controversial.

If you’ve turned on the news in recent days, the media would have you believe the George Floyd protests have been anything but peaceful. But all indications tell me that’s patently false. Sure, in some instances’ vandals infiltrated peaceful demonstrations taking advantage of opportunities to loot, riot and steal. While that’s to be expected, for the most part protesters have been policing their own, carrying out their acts respectfully.

As we navigate these painful times, I’ve asked myself (and others) what role companies play in eradicating racism. Many companies have issued public statements, pledged financial donations to community organizations and are hosting training for employees. However, the jury’s out, companies must do more. You may have also seen Amy Coulterman’s post where she shares five steps companies can take to create an advocacy strategy. All these steps are great. However, here in the DC area two companies took their advocacy a step further by making protesting more accessible for their employees.

These companies are offering what some call “protest PTO” or “social justice benefits”.

“Social justice benefits” for employees may be here to stay.

The fast-casual pizza chain &pizza announced their offering additional Paid Time Off (PTO) to employees who want to participate in activism following the death of George Floyd. And while they’ve given three additional days of PTO to their 700 employees across 40 locations throughout Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts for these recent protests, they've made it clear this policy is here to stay. They’ll be keeping this policy in place allowing employees to participate in activism of their choosing in the future.

In addition to &pizza the Canada-based company Aldo is choosing to pay the legal fees for employees who were detained while participating in peaceful protests. But they’re not alone in making these decisions. Matter of fact, major outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has previously supported the payment of bail for their employees who were arrested for peacefully protesting environmental issues.

So, perhaps this is a new trend that’ll only expand with societal pressure. However, in the case of &pizza, their bold stance hasn’t come without criticism. While many have embraced their supporting employees in acts of peaceful protesting others have denounced this action claiming it’s supporting violence.

I suspect this act will be seen through the lens or perspective held by that individual who may be casting judgement. You may see this as virtuous or villainous depending on which side of the argument you’re on.

What culpability will companies bear? Maybe none.

Protests can be highly volatile. In just a matter of seconds lines can become blurred on what’s considered peaceful or violent. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that people are always responsible for their actions as individuals. And just as a company wouldn’t bear responsibility for the actions of an employee who may be on PTO while vacationing, I don’t think a company should be responsible for the actions taken by an employee while on PTO to protest. But I’m also not a lawyer. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

In these instances, maybe the only risk a company bears would be that of its reputation. Sure, they’re likely to receive a boost in popularity among those who agree with their stance, but they may take a hit from would-be customers who are turned off by the policy.

And while I don’t work in human resources It’s my estimation companies must start asking questions regarding whether these types of benefits are a good fit for their company. And while these types of policies are far from mainstream, here are some questions that must be asked by those working in human resources, corporate social responsibility, risk management and legal teams as these policies gain traction;

  • How can a company know without a doubt that the "protest PTO" is honoring the policy of participating in non-violent and peaceful protests?

  • What happens if the company pays the fees associated with an employee being detained or arrested, and after the fees are paid that employee is in fact found guilty?

  • Does that employee then owe that money back to their employer?

  • What does the fine print on this policy hold employees responsible to?

  • Does an employee using "social justice benefits" need to prove they’re using the PTO for a specific activity?

  • What if that activity is off brand from the company or supports a highly controversial cause?

While there are many questions that must be asked by the companies implementing these policies, I happen to think these policies will become more commonplace. But what do you think? Is this just a flash in the pan, or is this a trend that will become more mainstream (and expected) like the common PVTO benefits for employees to volunteer? While I don't have all the answers on this, I do feel strongly this is something we must pay attention to. As we head into what may be another turbulent week, I hope others will think through the ramifications of these policies and what place they have in businesses both small and large. As always, thanks for your thoughtful feedback and dialogue on this topic in advance.

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