GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Talking Politics is Good for Business – The Value of Employee Political Engagement by Amy Showalter author of "The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful and Live to Tell About It."
I contend that it’s not a company’s sound financial management, charismatic leadership, or business ethics that will solely determine its success; it can also be decided by the actions of the Congress of the United States as well as state and local governments.
A vote in the U.S. Congress, state legislature, or city council can affect growth opportunities, tax rates, and ultimately, employee jobs and paychecks.
In order to stay ahead of the curve, company leaders need employees who are educated and informed about forces in the external environment that impact their company’s growth.
So, instead of trying to regulate and eliminate political debate in the workplace, leaders should proactively encourage discussion within the context of company business priorities.
But in order to do so, they’ll have to promote political engagement by letting employees “talk politics” in the office.
Companies like International Paper, Pfizer , Nationwide, Wendy’s , and Southwest Airlines encourage political issue discussions because their executives smartly recognize that an informed and empowered employee and franchisee network results in increased allegiance to the organization, more spirit de corps among employees, and not incidentally, an increased understanding of how the business really operates. That‘s a benefit I assume all executives would cherish.
In 2011, Netflix spent about $500,000 lobbying Congresson issues ranging from non-discrimination and internet privacy, to intellectual property and competition issues. On April 5th 2012, the company filed to create their own political action committee (PAC) stating, “Our PAC is a way for our employees to support candidates that understand our business and technology” as well as engage issues of network neutrality, bandwidth caps, usage based billing and reforming the Video Privacy Protection Act.
Why It Matters
Just ask any restaurant industry executive, who a decade ago had few concerns in the local, state or federal legislative arenas, but now have their food ingredients scrutinized and regulated while being vilified as the reason for the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Just ask the retailers who fought the banks over debit card swipe fee legislation, or pharmaceutical executives who and rely on the government to pass sound patent protection legislation to protect their intellectual property.
Consider what executives in the green energy or fossil fuel energy sectors must manage when it comes to politics. As we have seen with the Keystone Pipeline project, federal and state governments determine where they can operate, the amount of subsidies they receive and their tax rates.
Many companies in these sectors were the leaders in encouraging employee political discussions in the workplace. But there’s a right way and wrong way to do it.
THE RIGHT WAY TO TALK POLITICS AT WORK
The Right Way to Talk Politics at Work
Companies who deter from bringing political issues into the workplace usually use the ubiquitous “social issue” excuse: “What if they start talking about emotional social issues? That could impact team work and morale.” And they’re right, discussions can divert when corporate leaders don’t create a sharp focus on the business issues at stake.
For those corporate executives who get a bit nervous about introducing politics into the workplace, my advice is to create a crisp focus on your political discussion topics. Keep the discussion connected to the issues that impact your highest priority business outcomes. Trust me, you’ll easily find connections. My best clients have formal mission statements and objectives for their political engagement programs directed to the issues that affect their employees’ jobs and paychecks.
I’ve heard a couple of my clients remind their employees, “Our issues don’t support the Republican Party or the Democrat Party, but the XYZ Corporation Party”----they remind the employees of what they have in common, rather than their differences. And being reminded of those common interests through political discussion is a valuable morale builder.
However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that employees will agree with the company position just because they get a paycheck. Employers have to persuade as well as educate their employees. Companies who do this right explain both sides of an issue and let the employees determine for themselves why the legislation is favorable or not for their company. Employees can get this information anywhere today, so why not have it come from their employer?
The good news is that if executed properly, fostering workplace political discussions will teach employees more about the business and help them better understand the validity of management’s decisions. Employees will develop a greater emotional allegiance to the company’s interests and be more committed to their company’s future.
Corporate Campaign Advisor, Amy Showalter M.A., is the President of The Showalter Group, a corporate advocacy and government relations firm. Amy is the author of the book, "The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful, and Live to Tell About It" (Morgan James, 2011) and holds a BA in Political Science and an Master’s of Science in Administration. Amy Showalter has worked with over 150 organizations, including Southwest Airlines, the American Heart Association, and Pfizer helping them organize persuasive grassroots campaigns.