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As citizens, it’s hard not to feel that some of the underpinnings of democracy have been under a lot of pressure these last few years. No doubt you’ve heard from employees about these issues. It may also be leading to increased conflict within the workplace.

Which is why one of the projects the American Bar Association has been running this year is more relevant than ever. (One of the many hats I wear is serving on the ABA’s Board of Governors for a three-year term.)

This year, the ABA has rolled out its Cornerstones of Democracy program focused on three pillars: Civics, Civility and Collaboration.

Those all sound simple, but with increased social media usage and television news being tribalized, these cornerstones have all been under attack.

Thus, this project is designed to help attorneys and their employers engage with their communities. This is the type of project a legal department can help spearhead.

Fortunately, the ABA has produced a easy to follow guide that can be downloaded here.

But even more than that, companies can help foster communications by encouraging discussions among disparate groups.

While I was recently attending the ABA Midyear Meeting, the ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross (a New Yorker!) invited Eugene B. Meyer, President and CEO of the Federalist Society to a lunch before the Board. There was no pre-ordained agenda and as Mr. Meyer stated, members of each organization often disagree with one another. But he encouraged the members to listen, argue vociferously when they disagreed with a point, but to also be civil while doing so. He encouraged an attack of ideas not people. He received a warm ovation at the end.

I’ve said to whoever will listen to me lately that years ago, we talked with someone, we used to focus on the 80 percent of the items that we agreed upon and respected differences. But lately, whether it’s politicians, or the news, or other groups, there’s been a bullhorn used to stoke division and fear. People who you disagree with are no longer neighbors, but rather “enemies”.

Companies can play an important role in making sure that all employees feel heard and respected — even if the employees may not agree on everything from time to time.

One of the topics in the Cornerstones of Democracy materials asks groups to engage in civil discussions around the topic of “How do we balance free speech rights in the workplace?”. After a preliminary discussion, various questions can be posed to the group such as:

Do you think the relationship between employers and employees has changed in
the past year, or recent years?

Have you encountered free speech-related challenges in the workplace?

Why do you think most American workers are employed “at will?” What are the
benefits and challenges for workers and employers in this system?

Can you think of examples reported in the news when individuals faced
employment termination as a result of their speech, expression, or nonexpression
(silence)? Do you think it was appropriate?

How has technology reshaped workplace relationships?

I won’t say that it’s easy to have these conversations and most workplaces will decide that these topics are too raw to discuss. But employers can help in other ways by encouraging employees to participate in their communities and engage in discussions with different groups.

Building democracy isn’t a single straight line but rather a multitude of steps taken by different people over time. My thanks to the entire ABA for focusing on this issue while I serve on the Board. It’s extremely rewarding to be a part of it.