Employees sometimes get unhappy with their companies. Pay and benefits used to be top concerns, but now social justice issues have emerged as major issues. Employees at the software company New Relic have vented about the CEO’s politics and his wife’s political contributions. What should a company do when workers object over political issues?
The local newspaper in Portland, where the company’s tech employees work, reports “The conflict has been amplified by CEO Lew Cirne’s large donation to a private Christian school that excludes gay students and opposes gay rights. He has also donated money to a controversial evangelist who proselytizes to Jews. Cirne’s wife is a contributor to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, another sore point for many New Relic employees even though she has no role with the company.”
Workers in previous decades would have shrugged off the boss’s politics as irrelevant, but some young staff members feel compelled to voice their objections to those with differing political, religious or ethical views. Although many news stories highlight liberal objections to conservative views, the opposite has also happened.
Step One when employees object to the CEO’s or owner’s opinions is to understand the objection, especially whether the concerns relate to a part of the business or just the boss’s personal opinions. For example, the New Relic case seems to be about the CEO’s beliefs and actions outside the workplace. But at Amazon, employees objected to the company providing cloud computing services to the oil and gas industry.
For business-related concerns, some issues might strike to the heart of the company. If coal miners object to their product’s impact on global warming, management probably has to tell them they are working at the wrong job.
Some concerns are not at the heart of a business, just a profitable corner. Amazon’s cloud services division could survive without sales to the petroleum industry. A company might decline to sell its products or services in some cases. Before conceding to employee demands, however, leadership should broaden the analysis to consider other controversial areas: gun stores, hospitals that perform abortions, hospitals that do not perform abortions, customers who do business with China (with its Uighur suppression), Saudi Arabia (with unequal rights for women), Nigeria (with the death penalty for gays), and so forth. The list of controversial customers could be about as long as the entire customer list. A business can choose to make decisions case-by-case, but that makes it vulnerable a never-ending list of concerns. It’s much easier to have a blanket policy such as this: “Business decisions with social implications are best made by the country at large through democratic processes. We have decided to engage in all legal sales and to decline illegal sales.”
When concerns are about the owner’s or CEO’s politics, the boss should first consider how to relate to employees with different opinions. In many cases, the owner is happy to have good workers of any political persuasion. However, I have known people who view all liberals as stupid, and others who think anyone voting for Trump is racist. Owners should clarify their own views about employees with differing opinions before setting policy, keeping legal anti-discrimination laws in mind.
The majority of business owners, in my experience, are happy to have good workers of any political belief, and do not pressure any employee to vote a particular way or support particular candidates. Those business leaders should say so. And then employees can be told that if they are not happy with the owner’s beliefs, they have to choose whether they wish to continue working there or not. Some employees may bail out of the company, but most will respect the owner’s right to an opinion. Those who leave the company may be more focused on social issues rather than on serving customers efficiently, so it won’t be a great loss. If this approach is pursued, though, the owner must consistently respect employees’ differing political opinions.
Keep in mind that when decisions are made about employment or who to do business with, legal issues may arise. Policy should be checked by an attorney, unfortunately.