Tech leaders are navigating an era of corporate activism and polarization – GeekWire

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Amazon employees gather at The Spheres on the company’s campus in Seattle in 2020, demanding paid time off to vote. (File Photo GeekWire/Taylor Soper)

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, tech executives were thrust into a political debate, whether they liked it or not. Many companies such as Seattle’s Redfin have changed their policies to cover the expenses of workers crossing state lines for abortion care.

Some Redfin employees applauded the decision. Others have given up.

The response is emblematic of a new landscape that business and tech leaders must navigate in a polarized country that will vote in its midterm elections on Tuesday.

Gone are the days when companies had to remain politically neutral and narrowly focused on business operations.

But the playbook for running these increasingly political workplaces remains largely unwritten.

Redfin is in a particularly difficult position due to the nature of its business. Technology workers at the Seattle-based company tend to be liberal and often expect the company to champion progressive causes. But Redfin also employs estate agents across the country, many of whom are quite conservative.

Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman tries to include everyone in his politically diverse workplace. But in an interview with GeekWire, he acknowledged, “sometimes you have to make a controversial decision.”

The current political climate leaves many leaders feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. New generations of workers and customers expect more political engagement from their employers, but any position held by a CEO risks alienating some of them. At the same time, political neutrality in the age of polarization is often castigated as weak. Additionally, large corporations that aim for neutrality often become political punching bags during election cycles.

Why workplaces are becoming more political

For decades, corporations have largely limited their political engagement to lobbying behind closed doors and speaking out on economic issues that directly impact business, such as taxes and minimum wage requirements.

That all changed during Donald Trump’s presidency, when corporations began to take unprecedented policy action on matters with little direct connection to day-to-day business operations.

Amazon, Microsoft and others threw their weight behind lawsuits challenging Trump’s immigration ban and efforts to overturn DACA. Hundreds of brands spoke out against racially motivated police violence during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Salesforce, PayPal, Amazon, Microsoft and others used their power to fight anti-transgender laws at the state level.

The trend is partly driven by employee and customer expectations.

Aniran Chandravongsri, Google cloud software engineer in Seattle, spoke out against a contract signed by Google and Amazon to supply technology to the Israeli government during a September 8 rally at the Google building in South Lake Union, in Seattle. (GeekWire/Tony Lystra File Photo)

In recent years, tech workers have called on their employers to take bold policy positions on issues ranging from provide technology to the army at reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. These militant employees file shareholder resolutionsorganize walkouts and circulate petitions aimed at influencing the direction of the company.

Customers and users sometimes join the fight, boycotting products in response to corporate political posturing. In surveys, consumers largely say they expect companies to play a role in political affairs. A 2019 survey conducted by Global Strategy Group of more than 800 adults revealed that 78% believe “our government is broken and businesses need to step in and help bring about positive change in our society.” Of those surveyed, 80% said that “companies should take action to address important issues facing society.”

There are, however, big partisan divisions on what issues people think companies should be addressing. Only 34% of Republicans said companies should speak out on transgender rights, for example, compared to 65% of Democrats.

Herein lies the challenge for business leadership. Is it possible to respond to the pressure to become political without alienating part of your workforce and customer base?

Political agnosticism in the age of polarization

Some companies are responding to the current climate by applying political agnosticism, requiring employees and leaders to remain neutral on hot-button workplace issues. But this approach carries its own risks.

In 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong made famous set up a policy banning political debate and activism in the office, offering severance packages to employees who do not comply. Around 60 employees, or 5% of Coinbase’s workforce, quit and the move received both praise and harsh criticism. Several Armstrong peers have spoken out on the policy, including former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who said, “The first capitalists who think you can separate society from business will be the first to line up against the wall and to be cut down in the revolution.”

Kelman only takes public policy positions when the issue is relevant to the company’s mission.

“Political leaders are trying to put companies in positions where we need to be on one side or the other of a debate and employees, especially younger ones, have followed that lead,” said Kelman, CEO of Redfin since 2005.

Despite some companies’ efforts to remain politically neutral, CEO activism is on the rise, according to an opinion by Harvard researchers Aaron Chatterji and Michael Toffel.

“Smart CEO activists usually pick their issues; problems don’t choose them,” they wrote. “To avoid being caught off guard by a news story or jumping in awkwardly on a topic they know little about, CEOs should sit down with their leadership teams, including their communications directors, and decide what issues concern and why.”

But that advice doesn’t solve a key problem with CEO activism. C-suite policy doesn’t always align with employee policy.

“I think people should vote at the polls, not on company policy.”

A 2017 Stanford study out of 600 tech companies, executives tend to be conservative on free markets, regulation and unions, but liberal on issues such as human rights. The New Republic calls it “Silicon Valley politics – a distinctive blend of liberalism and libertarianism.”

But the workers who make up these companies tendency to lean more to the left on a wider range of topics, which sometimes leads to clashes between employees and management.

Even if these conflicts do not occur, leaders set the tone for a company. If a CEO is outspoken on one side or the other of the political spectrum, it can attract like-minded employees and discourage those with differing opinions from joining a company.

Managers and employees — together or apart?

A possible remedy could be to involve employees in the process of corporate political activism. Employees could, for example, elect a committee to decide which issues and candidates management will publicly endorse. Or all employees could vote on how company dollars were spent.

Tom FreemanA longtime Democratic Party activist and head of client innovation at data startup Rendered.ai, believes that democratizing political discourse in this way is the best way forward for tech leaders.

“We need a mechanism to develop consensus within a company before taking a political position,” he said. Freeman later added, “I would say the future looks a lot more like a transparent process than a process created behind the scenes.”

It can be difficult to persuade leaders that a more democratic process of political engagement is the best way forward. Kelman warned that this approach could create a “tyranny of the majority.”

“I think people should vote at the polls, not on company policy,” he said.

INRIX, the Seattle-area traffic analytics company, aims for political neutrality by welcoming candidates from both sides of the aisle to talk to employees.

“At INRIX, we try to be apolitical and we deliberately do not get involved in political debates or take sides on particular issues,” the CEO said. Bryan Mistele said in an email. “Our goal is to show respect for all of our employees, who we recognize come from all political backgrounds and to let them personally engage on issues that are important to them. That said, we will welcome national candidates and statewide who will contact us and want to speak to our employees.

Last month, Mistele shared a photo on LinkedIn of himself and US Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley at company headquarters.

“She would bring a breath of fresh air to Washington, and I’m proud to support her,” Mistele wrote.

Mistele said the post was a separate personal statement from the company. “Everyone should be free to support causes and candidates from their personal social accounts without fear of being harassed or targeted,” he said. He added that the company has welcomed “a variety of candidates over the years”, including Senator Patty Murray – Smiley’s opponent – as well as former Governor Christine Gregoire and Representative Suzan DelBene.

Freeman, the tech worker and Democratic Party activist, commented on Mistele’s post on LinkedIn and said it “sounds like an endorsement of INRIX” and “should be a big red flag for any automotive or municipality considering to engage with INRIX”.

The post highlights a particular challenge for leaders: exercising their right to political speech without involving the companies they run. That may not be possible, at least according to Chatterji and Toffel, the Harvard researchers studying the question.

“While CEOs must first decide whether they are speaking for themselves or their organization, they must recognize that any statement they make will nonetheless be associated with their company,” they wrote. “We’ve seen almost no CEO successfully parting ways with their company in this way.”

How should tech leaders navigate this political minefield? Most experts say with caution and a strategic approach. Chatterji and Toffel suggest defining a “compelling narrative explaining why this ask questions to this CEO of this company right now” and ensuring that the message is “authentic for both the individual leader and the company”.

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