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Politics is Bad for Your (Company's) Health

There are few things more beloved in Wisconsin than sausage—bratwurst in particular. So when people in the state are seriously considering stopping buying their brats from one of its most iconic homegrown firms, you know something is up.

Protesters fill the courtyard and steps outside the State Capitol building on February 16, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters were demonstrating against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.
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Protesters fill the courtyard and steps outside the State Capitol building on February 16, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters were demonstrating against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.

Anyone who has been paying even scant attention to news headlines of late will be able to guess what's behind the move: Johnsonville Sausage appears on a list of contributors to the gubernatorial campaign of one Scott Walker. The same Scott Walker who, as governor of Wisconsin, is attempting to pass a bill that will strip collective bargaining rights from members of public trade unions—a move Walker insists is necessary to properly balance the state's budget. (Note that the list makes no distinction between corporate donors and corporations that employ big donors.)

Unfortunately for Walker and his supporters, plenty of people disagree with his stance, as witnessed by the tens of thousands of protestors who have been taking to the streets and occupying the Capitol building in Madison of late. That's a lot of potential customers for donors to be ticking off at one stroke.

The politics of the bill have been well discussed elsewhere, and are somewhat beside the point at this juncture for many of the companies who have been named on the list. They're likely to be more concerned with damage to their bottom lines if everyone threatening to boycott their products because of political donations actually follow through.

How effective the campaign is remains to be seen—only a handful of disgruntled posts have shown up on Johnsonville's Facebook page so far—but it once again raises the issue of whether companies are wise to insert themselves into the political landscape.

The Supreme Court may have decided that corporations have the same rights of free speech as people, but whether companies should choose to exercise those rights is another question entirely. There are many good reasons why a firm would choose to donate to a political campaign. But as the events in Wisconsin prove on a daily basis, modern politics is a divisive place to be: it's rare that any political issue has a decisive majority either way (except, ironically, over the question of collective bargaining). That amplifies the risks involved for companies—especially in an age of instant communication and unprecedented access to information.

There are any number of politicians who could offer companies advice on how best to respond when they've been caught doing something that will make them unpopular with a large section of their community. But rather than seeking advice on how best to get out of a scrape, perhaps it would be better not to get into them at all.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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