Fallout, pushback and criminal charges from the recent violent raid on the Capitol building extend far beyond the physical grounds in Washington, D.C. and are about much more than politics or partisan leanings. There are larger lessons.

What business leaders and entrepreneurs can take away is a need not only to keep workplaces safe from outrageous acts, but to safeguard the organization from employees, board members or affiliated parties who may have committed criminal acts that harm individuals, the company, brand or reputation.

No one needs to wake up to the news that a CEO, colleague, manager, boss or board member has been charged with a crime—particularly if there were hints along the way of threats or potential dangers to any individuals.

Reactions after the fact are not as effective as proactive protections of the workplace culture, associates, customers, investors and clients.

No one needs to work in an environment where a fear of an outburst, personal or physical attack is imminent, as the Congressional members and police experienced recently, as well as journalists who were physically victimized while covering the violence or working in their newsrooms.

Here are eight steps you can take as a leader to create a safe, non-toxic work environment where anyone does not feel diminished or threatened and where there are consequences to criminal acts or hate speech.

Make a public statement. Whether you call this a mission statement or an update based on recent events, craft a non-political stand that as an entity and group of individuals you stand for respect, nonviolence, fairness and justice. State that you expect your employees and team members to treat everyone with respect regardless of private political views. You can explicitly mention non-tolerance for violent social media and hate speech and state consequences from reprimand to termination. Take The Lead has signed onto the group statement with Civic Alliance, “a non-partisan group of businesses working together to build a future where everyone participates in shaping our country.” The statement concludes, “As we look ahead, we will deepen our efforts to protect our democracy, build trust in our elections, and strengthen our nation’s civic resilience for generations to come.”

Know the legality of your actions. The legality of a termination is a necessary consideration, but the nuance of a company’s affiliation with individuals who may be members of hate groups or supporters of illegal activities is also a key factor. “Employers across the country have fired workers whowere arrested for their actions during the events or were shown in social media images as being there. Some businesses are facing calls for boycotts because their owners attended the rally,” the Chicago Tribune reports. “For the most part, private-sector employers can fire employees for any reason and are not constrained by the First Amendment rights to free speech that apply to public-sector employees.” Small Business reports, “If one employee commits a hate crime against another, the employee might end up in jail or prison, and you may need to fire the perpetrator to keep other employees safe.”

Understand the scope and limits of what you can rightfully do. “Under federal law, aside from workplace complaints, there are few limits on a private employer’s right to terminate a worker over forms of speech, such as participating in a protest,” Amanda Sonneborn, a partner at King & Spalding and part of the firm’s global human capital and compliance practice, told Yahoo Finance. Employees can be fired for criminal activity, but not for expressing views on social media or in public forums. It gets tricky if outside behavior does not interfere with a worker’s responsibilities.  

Know the rights of employees in and out of the workplace. “Most human resources professionals are comfortable issuing discipline to employees who engage in workplace misconduct during the workday; simply consult the handbook and determine the appropriate course of action based upon the nature and level of the offense,” writes attorney Tanya Salgado. “The situation becomes considerably more fraught, however, when employees engage in inappropriate conduct outside of the workplace,” Salgado writes. “Employers must balance the potential for bad publicity and negligent retention litigation for failing to address behavior with laws that protect aspects of an employee’s personal life from discipline.”

Break ties with clients, customers, and suppliers who support hate groups. Supporters of violence, hate crimes, hate speech and criminal activity do not have to work for you or with you, but association with these companies may harm your reputation and your bottom line. Sever ties. The Bangor Daily News reports, “The job gets done with small measures, such as strongly opposing hate as soon as it appears, defending those who are targets of hate, or finding other places to do business that align with more positive principles. It gets done publicly and loudly. It gets done by standing together as a community to support one another and build each other up. And it gets done by saying a resounding ‘No’ to hate groups, bigoted individuals, and businesses that condone hate.”

Read more in Take The Lead on a hate-free workplace

Screen for social media and be clear about policies. Before bringing someone on board, check out their social media profiles on many different platforms, ask about it in interviews and be sure it is a public face you want to be associated with your company brand. Yes, employees are allowed to have private lives and being silly or making dumb comments are not deal-breakers. But threatening anyone, brandishing weapons to incite violence, committing illegal acts such as using drugs or stalking, are not excusable and need to be red flags to not hire this person. “‘Employers should review their employee handbooks and policies and adjust them accordingly to ensure that employees know what they can and can’t do,’ said Lauren Novak, an attorney with Schiff Hardin in Chicago. ‘Pay particular attention to the wording of social media, equal employment opportunity (EEO) and anti-harassment policies,’ she advised,” according to SHRM.  

More tips from Take The Lead on avoiding toxic behaviors at work

Keep up to date on employees’ social media profiles. “If they’ve engaged in unlawful conduct, it’s going to be very hard for someone in the private workplace to contend that they can’t be fired,” San Diego legal analyst Dan Eaton tells the local ABC affiliate. Laura Acevedo reports, “The same goes for social media. Eaton says terminating someone for supporting or criticizing the government is not likely, but for example, applauding or encouraging criminal action at the Capitol through social media could have consequences.”

Consider organizing or joining a group to take a stand against hate, racism and toxic work behaviors. Investigate if there is an organization or industry group you can join in order to join forces taking a stand on what behaviors and activities are not allowed. For instance, in the construction industry, “More than 380 firms have signed the Associated General Contractors of America’s Culture of CARE inclusivity pledge, through which companies such as Hensel Phelps, PCL and Granite Construction have committed to providing a workplace that’s free from harassment, hazing and bullying. The number of participating companies has more than tripled since June, according to the AGC,” reports ConstructionDive.

More in Take The Lead on tips to create non-toxic workplace

Keep learning, keep training. Stay up to date yourself on how to maintain a calm work environment—even as employees work from home. A toxic remote workplace is as harmful as an in-person toxic workplace. You still see each other on zoom, just not by the coffeemaker. Offer resources, workshops and allow everyone to have access and input on how to make sure everyone feels safe and respected. Encourage transparency, feedback and respond quickly to anyone’s claims of unfairness, bias, discrimination, or worse. And of course, model integrity, kindness and fairness in everything you do at work and away from work.  

Read more on training, coaching and workshops from Take The Lead for individuals and companies

Everything you can do to make sure you have organization built on equity and integrity is well worth the effort.

This post originally ran in Take The Lead.


  • Michele Weldon

    Author 6 books; journalist; NU emerita faculty; The OpEd Project leader; editorial director Take The Lead, mother of 3 sons.

    MICHELE WELDON is an author, journalist, senior leader with The OpEd Project, directing the Public Voices Fellowship initiative at Northwestern University since 2012. She has led OpEd Project initiatives at Stanford, Princeton, Brown, DePaul and Loyola universities, Ms. Foundation, Rush University Medical Center, Center for Global Policy Solutions, Boone Family Foundation, Youth Narrating Our World through The McCormick Foundation,  Urgent Fund Africa  and more. She is an award-winning journalist and author with nearly four decades of experience on staff and contributing positions at North Shore Magazine, ADWEEK, Fairchild Publications, Dallas Times Herald and Chicago Tribune. She is emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School where she taught for 18 years. She was co-director of TEDxNorthwesternU 2014. She is the author of six nonfiction books including her latest, Act Like You're Having A Good Time (2020), Escape Points: A Memoir (2015) and chapters in seven other books; has delivered more than 200 keynotes and appeared on scores of TV and radio outlets globally. A frequent contributor on issues of gender, media and popular culture, her work appears in hundreds of sites including New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, TIME, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian, Slate, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and more. She is editorial director of Take The Lead, a global women's leadership initiative. She serves on the advisory boards of Life Matters Media, Global Girl Media Chicago, Sarah's Inn, Between Friends and Beat The Streets. She is a former member of the board of directors of Journalism & Women Symposium.