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The best way to talk to employees about Roe v. Wade and not screw it up, according to a top CEO and communications adviser

June 24, 2022, 3:00 PM UTC

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade on Friday, ending the constitutional right to abortion in a 6-3 decision. And CEOs will get pulled into the fray—whether they want to or not.

Workers expect their employers to find solutions to pressing societal issues, or at the very least address them. According to research from the Edelman Trust Barometer, 60% of employees globally believe CEOs should speak publicly about hot-button issues. But even if companies refrain from issuing public statements in response to Roe’s reversal, they will almost certainly have to address the legislative move in internal communications, given the sweeping and immediate impact on women in the workplace and a more geographically dispersed workforce. Abortion rights could instantly disappear in 26 states, affecting about half the women of reproductive age in the U.S.

“In the past, there had been a knee-jerk assumption that if it’s about abortion, a company won’t touch it; that it’s not a business conversation. What you see now is that companies recognize their role as an employer,” says Andrea Hagelgans, the managing director for U.S. Social Issues Engagement at public relations giant Edelman. She also leads the firm’s Roe v. Wade task force and is advising companies on their response. Hagelgans says C-suite conversations about reproductive rights have gone up “exponentially” since the draft was leaked.

As executives begin to craft their internal communications, relaying any changes to health care benefits, and reminding employees of the current coverage available to them, should be top of mind, says Ken Fields, global head of the crisis group at communications firm FleishmanHillard. “Any change from the Supreme Court’s decision will prompt questions from employees about benefits, and companies are going to have to communicate clearly any impact.”

Leaders will have to make immediately clear how the end of Roe v. Wade will affect employees’ benefits coverage, especially for those in states where trigger laws will go into effect; how the company is augmenting its reproductive care benefits, such as covering travel costs to obtain abortion procedures in other states; how the company will ensure health care data privacy; potential changes to drugs covered by health plans; and whether employees will receive additional time off if they have to travel out of state.

Hagelgans notes that companies should have already been communicating with staff, since the ruling was leaked in May, and adds that employees are unlikely to forgive an employer without a robust plan of action in place. Leaders should also remind managers to give their direct reports and colleagues room to process the news, and reiterate the company’s values. “Above all else, it is important to recognize that this won’t be a day like any other, so focus on providing for employees,” Hagelgans counsels.

Memos should come from the CEO and top managers, given the enormity of the ruling, she says, and should address concerns from other groups worried about how the SCOTUS decision might affect their rights in the future, including same-sex marriage.

Different approaches to a thorny topic

Companies have employed various strategies to address the revocation of abortion rights, notably since Texas passed its S.B.8 bill last year, banning abortions after six weeks. Citibank in March said it would cover out-of-state travel for employees needing an abortion. But it did so in an under-the-radar manner, only mentioning it in passing in an investor deck. The bank did not issue a press release, nor did it use the word abortion. “In response to changes in reproductive health care laws in certain states in the U.S., beginning in 2022 we provide travel benefits to facilitate access to adequate resources,” the firm said in its presentation.

Yelp, in contrast, put out out a statement this spring about its move to subsidize travel costs for out-of-state abortions and sent its diversity chief Miriam Warren on a media blitz, discussing how Yelp’s response plays into its broader talent strategy. Apple, Amazon, Lyft, Uber, and Match Group are among other employers that have made similar travel coverage commitments.

With federal abortion protections officially revoked, it’s important that leaders keep in mind how internal communications may affect their ability to attract and recruit workers, particularly in industries that are experiencing a labor crunch or find it difficult to entice female workers.

Already, firms like JPMorgan have disseminated internal memos updating employees on health care benefits as it relates to Roe.

Companies hesitant to weigh in on reproductive health care should keep one final item in mind, Hagelgans says: Social activists and some legal scholars say the SCOTUS decision could lead to future rulings that would curb the benefits companies offer to other marginalized employees, notably LGBTQ staff. And it goes without saying that such groups will closely watch the corporate response.

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