Leadership   //   October 13, 2023

Employers seek advice on how to broach Israeli-Palestinian conflict internally

When any global conflict occurs employers face the same question: how should we respond? 

Ignoring it entirely is a risk for a business. But equally, addressing it head on with a statement – whether it’s internal or external – that fails to hit the mark or strikes the wrong tone, can be equally risky for an employer’s reputation.

A recent poll from Gallup and Bentley University found that only 41% of respondents think businesses should wade into the fray on current events. But what happens when it’s a global conflict?

That’s what’s happening with the Israeli-Hamas war. Are employers acknowledging the situation internally with employees? Not every company is. That might partially be because they don’t know how to approach the issue in a statement or message to the organization. But having no official line on it, is leading to some heated debates among employees on different sides of the issue, within certain organizations, according to some sources.

Iliya Rybchin, partner at Elixirr Consulting, said that he has received several calls from business leaders who have wanted advice on how to address the conflict internally. Rybchin advised that the first step before drafting a comment or statement is to make sure that companies focus on the safety of their employees, partners, clients and even competitors. “Israel is a global hub for technology and innovation, with thousands of startups and billions in venture capital flowing through the country every year,” said Rybchin. “Nearly any company of any scale has operations in Israel, uses products and services of Israeli companies, or has business dealings with Israeli companies.”

He said that every C-suite executive he’s spoken to in the last week has personal or professional relationships with numerous Israeli citizens. That’s why the top priority is to get information about those there, understand the situation, determine if any assistance is necessary, and communicate with the families or colleagues of those impacted.

“All the steps need to be done in a transparent and honest way,” said Rybchin. “No sugar coating, no PR spin, no obfuscating the bad news, no motivations other than the safety of those the company is focused on.”

“No sugar coating, no PR spin, no obfuscating the bad news, no motivations other than the safety of those the company is focused on.”
Iliya Rybchin, partner at Elixirr Consulting.

Once the safety of everyone is assured, then the company can pivot to addressing the conflict. For any global conflict, most employers fear that taking a side could potentially alienate others. That’s why simply acknowledging what’s happening is a good place to start. In fact, Rybchin stressed that not doing or saying anything is “most definitely not an option.”

After deciding to acknowledge the event, Chris Harihar, a partner at NYC-based tech PR firm Crenshaw Communications, says that it is important to craft a statement that shows empathy and how you feel while also being mindful and using an informed approach that avoids capitalizing on the conflict. He spent last weekend trying to counsel many clients who operate in the region to do just that, all in a quick manner.

“If you don’t respond in those first two weeks to your employees, that’s kind of a miss,” said Harihar. “Your employees recognize there has been nothing said. That will likely be seen negatively by employees or partners.”

Since news of the war broke last weekend and throughout this week, he and his team have grappled with questions like, ‘how vivid the language should be, how much emotion to show, what words are just right?’ For example, some people are only including Israel in their statement and not Palestine. If you include both, which one should come first? Should it be called a situation, conflict or war? Should the word terrorism be included? Should we include a list of places to donate? The list of questions goes on. 

“This is a global, world altering event that will continue to dominate the news cycle and have a profound impact on the market and what people are thinking about,” said Harihar. “It’s critical for companies to think about how they approach talking about this. It’s not ‘should we talk about this, yes or no.’ It’s ‘we should talk about this, and at what level? Is it going to be a conservative route or more proactive and bold?’ That’s the dynamic we’re grappling with.”

“It’s critical for companies to think about how should we approach talking about this. It’s not ‘should we talk about this, yes or no.’ It’s ‘we should talk about this, and at what level?'"
Chris Harihar, a partner at Crenshaw Communications.

If you do decide to take a stance in support of one side or the other, Rybchin warns that it must be one that is maintained for the duration. “Changing positions on this topic makes the company look indecisive and potentially pandering to various constituents,” he said. 

Beyond an official statement for employees, Scott Lieberman, founder of TouchdownMoney.com, a consultancy for startups, says it’s worth creating or reiterating your company policy for employee at-work conduct regarding discussing politics and anti-harassment policies. “Managers should be trained and equipped to handle emotionally-charged employees who may disagree on the topic,” said Lieberman.

Smriti Joshi, licensed clinical psychologist and chief psychologist at AI mental health chatbot Wysa agrees, saying that employers should start by acknowledging the gravity of the situation and its emotional toll on individuals. If senior leadership don’t feel comfortable making a statement on the actual conflict, they can remind employees that they understand the additional stress people might be feeling.

“Encourage an open-door policy for employees to discuss their feelings, thoughts, and concerns in a safe and non-judgmental environment,” said Joshi. 

Managers being trained and equipped to handle these conversations might look like fostering open communication and active listening, promoting psychological safety, reinforcing confidential conversations and establishing new work expectations to minimize additional stressors.

“The ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine is not only a localized event but has reverberating global implications, affecting people both directly and indirectly,” said Joshi.