Politics are an unfortunate byproduct of a society with clashing values. I describe politics as unfortunate because, let’s face it, they have a negative connotation. As the prompt for this week recognized, most people like to stay far away from politics. To me, politics are like doing laundry–they’re an annoyance, but you can’t avoid them completely. We have already explored the inextricable link between values and business. Given that values inform your political views, politics are also inextricably tied to business. Yet, if we are hesitant to engage in political conversations, how can managers navigate their inevitable presence?
In order to formulate my own opinions on this precarious question, I started to look for examples of managers who have successfully professed their political views. One famous example is Jeff Bezos, the creator and owner of Amazon. Bezos pledged $2.5 million dollars in 2012 to help support Washington state’s Referendum 74, legislation that would legally permit same-sex marriage. Two years later, Amazon is alive and well. Bezos did not incite deprecating criticism. Why? His actions truly reflected his values and did not clash with a substantial segment of Amazon’s employees, customer base or investors; Amazon’s stakeholders were complicit with Bezos’ decision.
Bezos makes the whole issue of politics in business seem innocuous. Surely, it isn’t. Consider Chik-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s decision to openly condemn gay marriage. Cathy’s comments provoked a national outcry against the company as protests at local Chik-fil-A restaurants gained national attention. Cathy has the same right to profess his opinions as Bezos, and yet he received significant negative attention. His expressions aligned with his own values, but not with the values of society. Would Cathy have been better off to suppress his own values? Absolutely.
In tying these two examples together, we can formulate an important insight: managers must understand the impact of their political views and take a stakeholder-oriented approach. Even though managers should have the right to express their true values, they need to understand that they are prone to scrutiny and should pick their words wisely by understanding the interests of their stakeholders. If a manager’s views differ greatly from those of his stakeholders, then perhaps he isn’t the right fit for the job. Companies are not required to enter into political conversations, but when they do, they must enter with caution.