Politics – A Third Rail

At the risk of creating a feedback “maelstrom”, I want to discuss “politics” – well, not politics per se but the discourse of politics as it pertains to the workplace.

The recent presidential election has generated a significant amount of controversy across the entire political spectrum. And, many people have felt compelled to use a variety of communication channels to express their political points of view.

We should applaud, embrace, and cherish the fact we live in a democratic society and respect and revere individual free speech rights. However, there can be consequences for expressing those rights. And, while many of us have been trained to respect employment law regarding religion, gender, and sexual issues, I have found very little guidance regarding how to manage the discussion of politics in the workplace – a topic which can be divisive and hostile.

I make the following comments regarding discussing politics at work based upon my experience as a senior executive of a public technology company and a board member in many others. If you are an employee, manager, senior executive or board member, you may want to consider some or all of these issues:

1.  Here is the final tally from the presidential election:

  • Hillary – 65,844,610 – 48.2% of votes cast
  • Trump – 62,979,636 – 46.1% of votes cast
  • Others – 7,804,213 – 5.7% of votes cast

Therefore, statistically, when we are at work – depending upon where we are geographically located – there is a good chance that the co-worker, prospect, customer, partner, or vendor we are speaking with doesn’t agree with our political point of view. I believe we should all feel welcome to express our political viewpoints, when appropriate. However, we should also remember that, at work, we should be careful to use language and conduct that is respectful of others and mindful that not everyone may agree with our political beliefs. There are specific laws in place to protect employees against discrimination in the work place.Violating employment laws can subject the company and employees to legal consequences. If you are a CEO or senior executive, you may be well-served to consult your HR and Legal teams to ensure your company’s policies and practices vis a vis political discourse do not put your employees or company in jeopardy of violating local, state, and federal employment laws.

2.  If we manage people, we should be deeply aware that we are deemed to have “influence” over others. We may control their compensation, their ability to promote, and whether they are recommended to others. In other words, our words carry weight. If we express a political opinion that is counter to other members of our team or company, we run the risk of creating an atmosphere that could be described in a lawsuit as one that condones fear, intolerance and/or harassment. HR and legal executives will counsel this can have negative consequences. These laws and their consequences vary at the local, State and federal level.

3. I have witnessed a number of CEOs express their political points of view at company events or through social media – some have hosted political candidates running for office and sitting politicians at company or work-related events. While not illegal, I believe this is ill-advised. CEOs who actively bring their political – or any other – bias into the workplace can alienate large groups of employees, customers, etc. If the company is public, active shareholders can raise issues that could be damaging to the company, affect the price of the stock, and even generate lawsuits.Board members should perform their fiduciary duty to ensure the company, the CEO, key executives and all employees support and comply with local, state, and federal employment laws around this issue.

4. Many employees are electing to engage in public political discourse (e.g. social media, blog posts, etc.). That is great. However, I have seen people make posts that could be construed as a point of view that is endorsed and supported by their employer. Make sure if you make a political post, everyone knows you speak for yourself and not your company, if it isn’t blatantly clear. If you are a CEO, senior executive, or board member – you may want to ensure your company has a written policy regarding employees who post to social media ensuring that the opinions they express are their own and not the company’s. Consult your legal and HR teams for counsel here. If you are a CEO, I caution you to tread carefully in this area. I suspect we may see employment lawsuits emerge due to emotional and extreme differences of opinions from this recent presidential election.

A final word.

Social media has given each of us a “soapbox and megaphone” to easily make public statements, anytime and anywhere. If we choose to make our political points of view known via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., those statements are public and can be seen by current employers, co-workers, colleagues, customers, partners, etc. Our “digital exhaust” is easily accessible.

The First Amendment guarantees we all have the right to express ourselves. However, there is a possibility our comments may be viewed as hostile or vitriolic, no matter which political platform we support. One negative consequence from our social commentating is that we may be denied certain opportunities – a job, a sale, a promotion – from those who discover our posts and are in a position of authority with opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately, we may never know this happened. We will simply be passed by without comment or lose a deal we thought was “committed”.

So, unless we are certain we have no need to work with anyone, any group, or any company, ever, we may want to choose the words we use on social media very carefully – actually, any public forum. When a post or comment from a politician or friend makes us extremely upset, we are in violent disagreement, and we get ready to launch with a well-written tirade or tweet in response — we may want to think about our words before we hit “Post”. Just because we have the right to post something doesn’t mean we necessarily should.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are my own and are not necessarily endorsed by Wilidcat Venture Partners or anyone else for that matter.