These days, particularly in the United States, it feels like the divided nature of our politics makes it almost impossible to keep from choosing sides.
Whether you’re a person, a business or a politician, you almost certainly know what you support and what you oppose. For organizations and their leaders, that means the more difficult issue often becomes whether to say anything publicly about what you support or oppose.
From a business perspective, the issue of whether to make political statements is critical — and it’s more complex and risky than ever. In the past, CEOs, boards or businesses that took some sort of activist stand used to be able to draw a fairly bright line between social activism and political activism.
Today those lines are far more blurred. Whether we’re talking about the #MeToo movement, education policy, health care, immigration or trade issues, these debates frequently fall into both the social and political spheres.
These are deep and roiling waters for business leaders who personally feel obligated to communicate which side they’re on regarding hot-button issues. Given that there are essentially no people in the middle, coming out on one side or the other comes with significant business risk.
If you’re a business leader who represents a brand and you’re considering taking a public stand on a social or political issue, you should first think very carefully about these three constituencies.
The first group you have to carefully consider when mulling a public political stand is your employees. And here’s the first big question to ask yourself: Is your stand consistent with your stated and lived corporate values, or do those values just represent those of the CEO or some portion of the C-suite? If your stand is consistent with your stated and lived corporate values, and they’re not just the personal musings of a company executive, then you’ve got a check in the go-forward box.
Next, ask yourself if your stand will alienate employees and exacerbate the line between people on both sides of the issue in a more public way than already exists. Think about whether some employees will leave, or if they’ll instead stay and be more committed. Or perhaps they’ll remain but as alienated employees with reduced engagement and performance across the board.
An organization’s public political or social stand can bring employees together or can tear them apart. It can also significantly affect your ability to attract talent, for better or worse, particularly when the economy is strong. You have to carefully measure these potential impacts before you step into the political arena.
Next, it’s absolutely vital to consider how your stand will affect your customer base. Start by considering whether your public position will be received negatively or positively by customers — and also whether it will make it harder or easier for loyal customers to do business with you. The reality is that your stand could grow or diminish your customer base, while also negatively or positively affecting your brand promise.
Remember that you’re representing a business. If you feel compelled to make a political stand, think through how it will affect your actual business, what will the stakeholders will think about that and how or whether they will support you in the long term.
Finally, you have to weigh the impact of your action on your community. No organization exists in a vacuum, whether it’s a one-location business, has 20 locations around the country or is a global organization with hundreds of locations around the world. Consider how your stand will positively or negatively affect your standing in the communities in which you live and operate. Will the community be in agreement or will you alienate your community base?
Particularly if you’re a business with one or a handful of locations, you do business with other businesses in the community and you likely have relationships with policymakers. That means you have important relationships with the larger social environment in which you are living and working, and your business often relies on these connections in nontrivial ways. If your stand will make any of these harder, you need to think through truly what the ramifications are for that action.
When pondering a political stand, the bottom line is to remove the self from your decision and think only in terms of the business. If the stand you’re going to take will put your business at risk, put your employees’ jobs at risk or put your organization’s reputation at risk, then you need to think seriously about whether you’re willing to assume that risk.A
That doesn’t mean you don’t ultimately take the stand. It just means you have to be knowledgeable about what the effects will be and have contingency plans in place. As business leaders, we have to think through the ramifications for our organizations and the people that make them — and not just for the CEO.