As humans, we are relational, and politics is an extension of our humanity. As entrepreneurs and business founders, our businesses are our lives and an encompassing part of our identity. So should our politics be a public-facing part of our business? Can and should we separate the political and professional parts of ourselves?
First, we must consider the potential impact on our relationships with current and potential clients. What if we don’t know our customers’ politics, and they don’t match our own? Or, what if we do know that our customers’ politics span from red to blue, so in being political, we run the risk of offending a portion of our customer base?
If our business serves the general public, our brand runs the risk of social media wrath for being on the wrong side of our customers’ politics, as happened with Uber and Starbucks. Even if we claim our actions are profit-motivated, our business actions risk being interpreted as political, as happened with Nordstrom.
If our business serves other businesses, making our personal political views known risks weakening the personal connections that comprise our client base.
There are good reasons to keep our politics quiet in our professional world.
But lately, we may feel that the role of politics in our lives has been amplified. And, our businesses are literally our lives. There is no nine-to-five division between our work lives and our personal lives. As humans and entrepreneurs and thought leaders in our fields, should we stay silent when wearing our professional hat?
It’s important to differentiate between politics and public policies. Collectively, we’ve defined politics as agreeing with a party’s platform and their representatives, the values these parties and candidates pronounce, and the surrounding debate or conflict. Public policies, on the other hand, include legislation and regulations that already exist and may affect our businesses and how we do business. In politics, there is room for debate over values and beliefs that candidates haven’t yet embedded in their proposed policies. But with policies, our debate and concern is more consumed with how existing policies affect our livelihoods.
I propose that as entrepreneurs, this is where we carefully draw the line. Here’s how I do it.
For me, through my data analytics consulting firm, FirstEval, I have clear business reasons for caring about open data policies, government use of data, data privacy, and data access policies for my clients. As these policies emerge and change, I agnostically broadcast these changes to my followers and clients via social media, blog, and a newsletter. As a thought leader in the field of all-things-data, it’s my role to highlight trends in external forces influencing the availability and quality of data.
However, it’s not my role to broadcast to my clients my opinions on candidates’ views on issues that do not directly affect my business with my clients, like women’s reproductive rights or foreign policy. As Carol Roth warns here, potential clients may have a tough time separating individuals from their businesses, resulting in a loss of profits. Such opinions could alienate potential clients.
These are my own guidelines and where I’ve drawn lines for my professional presence.
Yet some argue that as thought leaders, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs, we have a duty to stand up for our values. After all, aren’t politics just a reflection of our convictions? So, if our businesses are ourselves, shouldn’t our businesses reflect what we believe? In this age of hyper-partisanship, should profits come second after values? Carrie Ingoglia urges us to not dismiss our personal politics, and to look at the big picture. Her industry (advertising) has power and a platform, and shouldn’t be silent at work, she states.
What does this mean and what would this look like? In a recent meeting with fellow consultants, we discussed whether this would mean knowing your clients’ values before you agreed to a relationship with them. Would it mean being brave enough to have your laptop covered in political stickers and taking it into a pitch meeting? For companies like REI and Patagonia this means making their values (stewardship, ethics, and integrity) known and public, regardless of the resulting effect on market share.
As entrepreneurs, our businesses are ourselves, and we get to choose where these lines are drawn. I choose to keep my personal politics and activism away from my firm’s persona, but I operate my business fiercely clinging to my own values of honesty, transparency, follow-through, acceptance, openness, efficiency, respect, kindness, shared prosperity, and gratitude. I just don’t ascribe political labels to these values. And, when policy change affects my industry and my clients, I shout about it.
So, Startup Rockstar, you get to choose where your political line is between personal and professional. Choose thoughtfully and stick to it.
(p.s. special thanks to Beth Lewallen for thinking through this topic with me!)