The Impact for Employees When a Business Takes a Political Position

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In the U.S. at least, partisanship has extended itself from the halls of Congress to the hallways of your business.

Don’t believe me? In the last year, I’ve had conversations that led people to believe that I was:

  • Democrat
  • Republican
  • Socialist
  • Libertarian
  • Green

Or, just a plain old jerk. These people took disagreeing with them seriously when it came to politics! And yet, when we entered a meeting about business issues, we could disagree just fine.

So when a company decides to take a political stand, is it any surprise when the consequences of that stand become magnified much more than a typical business issue?

To be or not to be politically agnostic?

I’ve worked for a variety of companies. Some have been ones that are completely agnostic. Most of their major board members stayed out of the political arena, and executive management most certainly didn’t play the game.

These companies wanted no part in the political process. If they did get involved, these board members, executives, and ultimately their employees, would generally work for advocacy organizations centered around a non-profit cause. And, even if they had a political action committee, they would stay out of it.

I’ve also worked for companies on the other end of the spectrum. They’ve had paid lobbyists, they’ve donated major money to specific candidates and causes, and they make it known throughout the company what political outcome would best help the business. They rallied their employees, and everyone involved, to the cause.

Risk and reward

For the agnostic, the risk is that you never mobilize your employees (and the people they influence) to speak truthfully about issues that can impact your company. You are willing to roll the dice that your potential non-action as a company won’t impact any political decisions being made for you. This is a real, calculated risk.

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For the unapologetic, the risk in getting involved in a political issue is that you could possibly offend customers and employees. The Harvard Business Review blog covered this issue saying:

As the first round of state primaries ends, a different cautionary tale is unfolding. Various activists and consumers have been vigorously expressing their anger towards a group of Minnesota-based companies, including Target and Best Buy, for the large contributions they made to MN Forward (for Minnesota Forward), an organization devoted to regional economic development which in turn endorsed and paid for ads backing a Republican candidate for governor.

This is a real risk, both in potentially alienating employees and customers. But, the real reward of making a positive impact on the political decisions being made for you by regulating and legislative authorities can often override this concern.

What’s the best course of action?

You need to be up front and communicate your intent with stakeholders, employees, and customers. Let them know where you stand (or if you’re choosing not to take a position), tell them why, and then let them choose. I worked for a company that had a CEO that had views that ran counter to mine but I never had a problem with it because he was up front and honest about it. If I was bothered by it, I wouldn’t have decided to join the organization. It’s a choice of priorities we all make as potential investors, employees, and consumers.

What I’ve found problematic are companies that try to hide donations or try to intimidate employees into acting in one way or another politically. The problem with both situations is that these generate stories that get easily spread and can give the organization’s reputation a serious hit.

What sorts of political situations have you dealt with in the past and how have you handled them?

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.