Intro: I’ve been on a little mission lately to try out publishing with some larger Medium publications. It’s tough because you have to invest time into writing these things on spec, submit them, and then maybe you get in / maybe you don’t. This one didn’t make the cut for its intended high-profile publication, so I’ll just pop it here in my own blog, as I still think it has its decent points. And, I’ll keep trying with some of those publications. :-)
IMHO, politics has significantly divided us (esp. Americans) for quite some time (esp. since the rise of right-wing talk radio in the 90s), but only within the very recent Trump era are we seeing mass social media unfriendings and so forth.
I kept my personal experience out of the article below, but now that it’s going to live here in my own space, I can freely add that my progressive politics (esp. my being a vocal proponent for Medicare for All and police reform) has caused many of my ultra-conservative contacts to unfriend me (several hundred, according to my FB friend count since about mid-2020). Admittedly, probably half of those several hundred have been ones I’ve actively unfriended because of their continual posting of what I viewed as offensive political content. I still have plenty of conservative friends and colleagues, but I was simply too liberal for many, and many were simply too conservative for me to remain friends online.
When entrepreneurs launch companies, there’s often little thought given to the politics of the company. And that makes sense because, arguably, entrepreneurs are primarily focused on the business. They want to develop and sell products or services, not think terribly much about office culture and other “softer” areas of the business.
Yet, in the post-Trump world, in which left versus right politics is more divided and heated than ever, putting some thought into purposefully setting a company’s political tone (which could range from far left, to neutral, to far right) could have benefits for everyone involved.
NPR ran a story a few months ago entitled “‘Dude, I’m Done’: When Politics Tears Families And Friendships Apart.” That article notes: “[i]t’s one thing to disagree about something such as tax policy … [but people] see their differences now as ones of basic morality, core values and character…”
In other words, whereas relationships (such as those in office environments or online social media) in the past could tolerate or withstand opposing viewpoints, people today are cutting each other off completely, perhaps more than ever before. The Civic Science article “The Majority of Americans Are Also Social Distancing from Politics” notes that 61% of social media users have unfriended, unfollowed, or blocked others for political reasons.
Yeah, But So What?
Okay, so why does this matter for offices and careers? Well, it’s fairly straightforward on both counts. Let’s look at each of those items individually:
Politically Misaligned Office Cultures
Office culture, especially for startups, is usually something that comes about more organically versus something that happens by design. Yes, we’re all familiar with the purposefully quirky environments of some startups — the casual dress codes, the ping-pong tables, the free snacks, the flex hours, the company retreats, the karaoke outings, even people bringing their dogs to work.
That was all well and good in the pre-extreme-polarization era (esp. before Trump, to pinpoint things). In those days, you could have an office manager who listened to Rush Limbaugh all day seated within earshot of someone in charge of the same company’s diversity initiative — and the two might’ve possibly at least gotten along. Even then, though, there was a fair possibility for tension — tension that helped no one get anything done.
Nowadays, though, the division is just too extreme, to the point of it likely affecting not only the office environment, but company productivity as well. And these examples work both ways: If you’re a lone liberal working in a pro-Trump office, you’re hating life just as much as the sole pro-Trumper working in a highly liberal atmosphere.
Ergo, it makes sense for a startup to enter into this somewhat more consciously than ever before. If you’re able, put some thought into questions like:
- Whatever our product(s) or service(s), are we as a company politically left, right, or neutral? And what policies and practices can/should we implement to support that? How, if at all, should that be communicated both publicly and internally?
- Will we as a company support, endorse, or recommend political candidates? If so, who decides that, and how?
- To what extent, if any, should we allow or limit individuals from expressing or discussing political views in the office? Can they wear political shirts, wear candidate buttons, hang signs in their offices?
- Can we (or should we) hire or fire based on political beliefs?
Surprisingly, the answer to that last one (which seems intuitively like a hard no, based on discrimination laws) may actually be a yes. In the Legal Scoops article “Can Being a Trump Supporter, Get You Fired or Not Hired,” the author writes, “[c]ontrary to popular belief, Federal law does not safeguard American employees from getting fired due to their political views” (emphasis added). (That said, research this one yourself because, as noted in that article, some states approach this question differently.)
The answers to the others also differ by company. A recent Forbes article notes that Coinbase, for example, has completely disallowed political discussions at work. (See “Coinbase Won’t Allow Discussions Of Politics And Social Causes At Work — If Employees Don’t Like It, They’re Free To Leave” for much more on this broad topic.)
The bottom line on this topic is that it’s in everyone’s interest — from unpaid interns to overpaid CEOs — to minimize tension in the workplace. And politics, more than ever before, is a root cause of it.
I’ll leave off this section with a link to a decent read from the Society for Human Resource Management. See their Spring 2020 article “How Should HR Handle Political Discussions at Work?”
Political Trickle-Down for Individuals
Two benefits come to mind related to companies aligning themselves to a political philosophy (be it left, neutral, or right). First up, there is the benefit of having a more cohesive office environment and office culture. With politics being among the more divisive topics, having a culture one way or another (or neutral) provides a space free from the potential tension of not having this in place.
Next up is a benefit that’s absolutely critical for individual careers — the ability of employees to form what’ll likely be stronger, and more lasting personal networks. If that’s not clear, then consider this example of politics affecting a person’s career:
- 2011–2016: A woman works in a conservative office, though she’s politically liberal. She supports LBGTQ rights, is pro-choice, etc. These were always divisive issues, of course, but somehow she was able to tolerate the office’s political banter, sometimes even getting in little tiffs with others, but nothing that felt serious. She’s friends with many coworkers on Facebook and LinkedIn.
- 2016: She takes a higher-paying job at a second conservative office, and parts on good terms with her 2011–2016 coworkers, remaining friends online. A few of those coworkers even served as references for her, for this new job. She picks up some additional social media contacts from this new job.
- 2016–2020: Trump comes into office, and the political rhetoric heats up. She now actively supports Black Lives Matter and reforms of police departments. The online disagreements with her 2011–2016 contacts become intense and, by 2019, she’s unfriended 90% of those former co-workers — not entirely on political grounds but, as mentioned above, it’s more about moral differences at this point. It’s also become quite tense at work for her lately.
- 2021: The new job dissolves for some reason (e.g., Covid cutbacks), and now she needs to get another. Only, her reference pool for the 2011–2016 years is practically nonexistent, and she frankly doesn’t place much faith in her 2016–2021 coworkers, either, owing largely to political differences.
With the above example, the social network of this woman has been slowly decimated — not that she was ever super-interested in being personally friendly with many of them. But, over past decade, there would be occasional “likes” and comments from her conservative contacts, and the possibility of future business, future references, and future eyeballs on links she’d share online. All of that’s gone now.
This isn’t just speculation, either. According to the article “What to do when your boss and co-workers don’t share your political beliefs” on Monster.com, 37% of respondents to a survey admitted to changing their opinion of a co-worker because of political affiliation. (I couldn’t find stats on anything more specific, but ask yourself if you’ve ever changed your opinion of a current or coworker based on specific internet postings. I certainly have!)
On the other hand, if the woman in the above example had known going in that political differences could leave her high and dry (from a social media and reference standpoint), she may have elected not to take the roles she did.
And this is basically where we’re at today. What didn’t matter too much, materially, pre-2016 has come back to haunt a lot of people who were the political outsiders at their organizations. We’ve since unfriended and unfollowed each other, which eliminated the tension felt in those social media accounts. But, what has it cost us going forward?
So, let’s revisit the above example, considering a known political environment and an conscious decision made by the employee to work there:
- 2011–2016: A liberal woman works at a politically liberal-leaning company. Like the company, she supports LBGTQ rights, is pro-choice, etc. Though people discuss politics at work, the tension is reduced because the others there hold similar views. She’s friends with many coworkers on Facebook and LinkedIn.
- 2016: She takes a job at a second politically liberal office, and parts on good terms with her 2011–2016 coworkers, remaining friends online. A few of those coworkers even served as references for her, for this new job. She picks up additional social media contacts from this new job.
- 2016–2020: Trump comes into office, and the political rhetoric heats up. Like her company, she now actively supports Black Lives Matter and reforms of police departments. While the political environment of the country has intensified, she’s retained and even grown her social media and professional reference base.
- 2021: The new job dissolves for some reason (e.g., Covid cutbacks), and now she needs to get another. She now has a considerable base of like-minded friends who interact and support her, who will gladly serve as professional references, and who may well alert her to opportunities.
Note that my examples here could easily be politically flip-flopped using a conservative example employee. But they should still produce similarly better results as compared to the previous example.
Of course, I readily acknowledge the underlying irony that, while the article addresses moral and political divisions in this country, the solution being offered is actually one that further segregates the two sides. That’s in some ways problematic, for sure. Yet, the examples shown remain easily believable.
The bottom-line assertions of this article are that (1) companies (especially startups, who have the opportunity) should consciously address their political environment in some way (even if deciding to remain neutral), and (2) individuals should consider a company’s political environment, if possible, prior to accepting a role, as there could be far-reaching professional consequences for not doing so.