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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity
  3. July 1, 2024

Are You Guilty of Virtue Signaling? (Hint: We All Are)

Experts weigh in on what it means to actually take a stand

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Photo courtesy of Prateek Katyal

A friend suddenly contradicts a lifetime of beliefs to support a trendy cause, but doesn’t change their behavior. What’s up with that? They’re likely engaging in virtue signaling rather than genuine activism or advocacy. 

Corporations do this. A lot.

Clinical and organizational psychologist Nicole Lipkin says, for example, that “after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, many companies released statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and condemning racism. Some of them had very poor records of diversity and inclusion in their hiring or leadership practices and did not take the necessary steps to remedy those significant issues.” This was virtue signaling. 

Read more: 3 Essential Steps to Allyship in Times of Crisis

Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, executive career strategist, business brand promoter and CEO of Career Trend, says one of the most egregious and recent examples of “holier than thou” employees was in a newsletter written by a company's key executive. The executive bragged that she had declined a keynote speaking engagement because the company that requested her presence was led by a non-diverse board of directors (middle-aged white men). 

She said the board lacked gender and racial diversity. But she also shared a photo of her own board of directors—all of whom were middle-aged white women.

Read more: Ask an Employer: What Interview Questions Do You Wish Women Would Ask?

Privy to many behind-the-scenes stories in her conversations with executive job seekers, Barrett-Poindexter says you can even see virtue signaling in the regular rotation of LinkedIn posts by company employees (often in leadership positions), who “pontificate about their company's esteemed, people-centric values, such as being human-centered, collaborative, employee-focused, caring, mentoring, and nurturing.”

“The reality is that many of these same, publicly celebrated companies are privately behaving in a manner opposing their declarations. They encourage or turn a blind eye to backstabbing, unethical, deceptive, anything-for-a-sale, and whatever-it-takes-to-win behaviors, even if it means crushing the spirit and career of one's colleagues.”

Read more: How to Successfully Stand Up for Yourself in Any Situation

So, what’s virtue signaling again?

Virtue signaling is a public statement that you’re a better person than most. It’s easy to post your stance as a staunch vegan on social media, while you continue to hunt, eat meat, and wear leather shoes in private.

The same goes for a company or person that’s virtue signaling; they’re boasting about how great they are on a particular issue or by supporting a popular cause. They might make noise about donating to a charity, for instance, but don’t make substantial or sustained contributions.

It’s human nature to want to appear better than you are. And when you express solidarity for popular causes, you can expect support from your friends, colleagues, customers, and society at large.

Read more: 28 Reasons Why Diversity at Work Matters

Is virtue signaling harmful or just really annoying?

It can be both. When a person focuses on appearing to be morally superior in order to obtain social approval, then virtue signaling is a self-serving and superficial act. That’s annoying; however, if that individual is a celebrity or influencer, they can do actual harm.

With 283 million followers on Instagram alone, Taylor Swift is one of the world’s biggest influencers. Unfortunately, instead of setting an example for her legions of fans by limiting her use of private jets on non-work-related trips, Swift uses them frequently, often to visit her boyfriend. This flies in the face of her public opinion that climate change is one of the “horrific situations” facing young people today.

It’s also “bad news for the climate,” writes Sara Novak in Sierra. “Some studies show that flying by private jet is up to 14 times more polluting than flying commercial, responsible for as much as 480 times the CO2 emissions when compared to an average person’s climate footprint by air travel.”

Read more: Why That Feeling of Belonging in the Workplace Is So Important

Of course, Swift is criticized for her actions which belie her words, but even those critics themselves may be guilty of virtue signaling. 

“One X user … suggested that a number of the critics online would likely use the same mode of transport if they had the chance, [tweeting] ‘I'm not saying it's okay, but everyone [is] acting as if they wouldn't do the same if they had their own private jet,’" reports Newsweek’s Ryan Smith.

It’s not only celebrities and wealthy influencers who can do harm. 

Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of EDA, a human capital firm, says virtue signaling by organizations can indeed be harmful. 

Read more: How to Foster & Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace

She gives the example of a company deciding it will appeal to women by showing major support for breast cancer. “They do a big campaign and ‘pinkwash’ Breast Cancer Awareness Month by releasing pink-themed products or donating a small percentage of profits to breast cancer research during October, while potentially engaging in practices that contribute to environmental pollution or health risks or selling products or pharmaceuticals that are clearly linked to breast cancer.”

The damage isn’t limited to the company’s customers or to the environment. It can hurt the company itself. “With perceptive customers, the organization might find itself in the middle of consumer backlash and even boycotts,” Hagemann says. “They could face fines for deceptive marketing and ultimately it could damage the brand they were trying to build up.”

Read more: Gen Z in the Workplace: 5 Essential Things to Know About This Rising Generation

Why is virtue signaling being called out?

Because it’s safe to do so, says animator, director and artist Nina Paley. “Suddenly,” she wrote in 2020, “it has become very important for white people to express their concern for Black lives, when in fact we’ve been aware of police brutality for years or decades. It would have been much riskier to share these messages 60 years ago.”

You can also tribute the callouts to young people. Hagemann says that the game’s definitely changed for corporations in recent years because “younger workers in scale are refusing to work for organizations that do not have meaning beyond making money.”

And those Gen Zers “want to know a company’s purpose, mission, vision, and values before deciding they want to work with that company,” according to Fran Maxwell, global lead for people advisory and organizational change for Protiviti. As consumers, Maxwell says Gen Zers will “spend dollars on organizations that align with their values [and] they’ll spend more if it’s a socially acceptable organization.”

Read more: Identifying Antisemitism in the Workplace + Advice for Managers & Allies

How can companies stop virtue signaling?

How to stop this from happening is for the leaders at the helm to take ownership of the situation, says Barrett-Poindexter.

“Rather than being disingenuous with their public social media posts, company leaders should pause their false narrative and begin a process of internal corporate repair work. Fix the problem and with time, the right people—your direct reports and other frontline employees—will find their way to social media to advocate the truth and beauty of working for your organization.”

Lipkin tells InHerSight there are four specific steps organizations can take to avoid engaging in performative actions. These are:

1. Clearly articulate and integrate the values into the actual culture of the company. 

If a value of the company is truly to be environmentally conscious or socially responsible, internally and externally to the organization, then weave that into the very DNA of the company. In other words, ensure that your internal and external practices are aligned with what you are saying, whether that be engaging in fair labor practices, or ensuring that you are environmentally conscious in all of your actions. 

2. Identify and hold accountable to measurable goals.

If you are going to have social and environmental goals for your company, these metrics should be as crystal clear as the metrics you have for other processes and expectations in your firm. Measure these outcomes as diligently as you would measure your sales outcomes.

3. Make accountability, learning, and growth core tenants of how your company operates.

There will most likely be times when a company does not live up to the standards it is trying to set with regard to social and environmental commitments. It’s how they are handled when things aren’t working out or aren’t living up to expectations that matter most. A willingness to listen, admit wrongdoing when or if wrongdoing has occurred, and a willingness to learn from the event and evolve the approach is key. 

4. Make it an “all of us” action. 

To truly have a successful social responsibility and/or environmentally conscious commitment, it has to be an “all of us” thing instead of a “one of us” thing. This can’t just fall upon leadership or a small group of folks dedicated to the commitment. People throughout the company need to feel empowered to get involved, to understand the impact of their involvement, and to feel the impact of the company’s commitment.

It’s really not difficult to do.

Read more: 50+ Questions to Ask the Interviewer About Company Culture

Certainly, some organizations naturally lend themselves to social causes (such as health care), while others struggle, says Hagemann. However, it is possible for all types of organizations if they are willing to really think it through and come up with meaningful contributions to the world.    

For example, a manufacturer of home components such as windows or doors might be the local sponsor for Habitat for Humanity, contributing financially, with products and allowing all employees some time to go work on and help build homes in the community. This is the positive way companies can use social causes that attract talent—and build a better world.

The best way to ensure positive sentiment around social causes is to only do them if it is deeply meaningful to the leadership, Hagemann advises. “Do nothing that isn’t sincere, and if you choose to take a cause and run with it, go big or go home. Don’t help 20 causes; pick one that your leaders care deeply about and have a meaningful and lasting impact on that one cause.”

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