The Final Vote: Should Companies Take A Stand on Social or Political Issues?

By
Geoff Roberts
·
20 min read

It’s late at night and you’re in your local subway station, ready to catch the final Red Line train home. The train is late per usual, and the station is quiet and dim—only a handful of other passengers are waiting on the platform.

Suddenly, one of the few walks up to another passenger, stabs them, then flees the scene.

What do you do?

Chances are, you and the few remaining passengers rush to the aid of the victim. It may be late at night, you may be exhausted, and you will miss the final train home. But it’s the right thing to do, and as an individual, you feel an obligation—dare I say a moral obligation—to act.

Now imagine if instead of your fellow passengers being named John, Sally, and Ben, they were called Company A, Company B, and Company C. Would your expectations of their behavior change?

There’s never been a better time to explore the behaviors we expect from businesses

We’re in the final hours now before the most consequential US election that I’ve seen in my lifetime. One that has led me to very publicly share my “political” perspectives for the first time in my life. I’ve done that already—that’s not what this post is about.

Over the last two months I’ve purposely engaged with dozens of incredibly smart people that I deeply respect to explore a singular topic:

Should companies (not individuals) take a stand on social or political issues?

If I’ve learned anything about this topic through those discussions, it’s that this topic is extremely nuanced. Many people who are almost perfectly philosophically aligned when it comes to all other aspects of business blatantly disagree on this topic, while others who have almost nothing in common see things the same way. Perhaps most interestingly, many very smart people aren’t able to articulate their perspective with much in the way of reason.

The election in the United States will soon be behind us, but this topic will not be. This post is not a case for my own opinions—rather it’s an exploration of both sides of this topic. I’m going to intentionally look at this topic though the eyes of a CEO, an employee, a marketer, and a consumer. Why? Because it’s a question that looks very different depending on where you sit.

But at the end of the day I’m writing this post for two reasons:

  • First, so that we can reflect on 2020 and say that we learned something from all this madness.
  • Second, because I think this will be one of the most important topics for marketers and business leaders to consider going forward. 

Having explored this topic at a level of depth that I don’t give to many, I’m even more enamored with this topic than when I started. This post provides an exploration, not an answer.

Let’s dig in.

We can all agree there’s a line somewhere

The example of the stabbing in the train station is of course a hypothetical, but it’s meant to draw attention to the reality that most people expect different behavior from individuals than they do from businesses. But at some point—whether it’s a person or a business—there has to be some level of behavior that we simply can’t turn a blind eye towards.

As I’ve discussed this topic with others, I’ve found it’s most productive to start the conversation with the idea that there’s a line somewhere—a point at which a business HAS to care about what’s going on in the world in which it operates. I think it’s reasonable to say that’s something we can all agree on.

So you can’t really address this topic until you answer the question:

“Where is the line drawn at which point our business feels obligated to speak up when we see wrongdoing?”

Ultimately that’s the discussion that companies need to have and a decision that they need to make for themselves. Don’t listen to me or anybody else.

Find that line.

Not every company can take a stance on every issue, nor would we want to live in a world where that happens. Can you imagine how exhausting that would be? But you’ve got to find the point at which you can no longer bury your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on around you. We do this as individuals, but with businesses yielding the power that they do we should be doing this as businesses too. And it’s totally appropriate if your line represents very extreme circumstances. That’s for your business and team to decide—no one else.

The best businesses I know have been facilitating this conversation internally this year—and it doesn’t have to focus on the issues you want to take a public stance on, but instead needs to start with identifying the line that when crossed leaves your company no real choice but to speak up.

For those that say that businesses are made up of people who all hold different moral values, think in extremes. If your business is not comfortable condoning genocide, or nuclear war, or rape… what sort of business are you operating? Find your line. This will be your north star as we continue exploring this topic.

Companies are just collections of people—but how does this manifest itself in decision making?

The second point that’s been helpful to me to consider as I’ve had these conversations with others is the (seemingly simple) idea that companies are just collections of people. I called out Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong quite directly for hiding behind his company’s mission statement, essentially saying his company’s mission should be its singular focus. But in all the conversations that I’ve had it’s very clear that many people consider a business to be a sort of independent entity that should be able to operate without being held to the same levels of responsibility that we expect of individuals. Why is that?

Nobody wants to feel like their company is speaking on their behalf—especially if it’s misrepresenting them

Perspective: Employee

This is perhaps the most commonly cited reason as to why businesses shouldn’t take a stance on polarizing political or social issues. Companies are supposed to be diverse groups of people, and one single entity (the business) can’t collectively speak on behalf of all of them.

Corey Haines, Founder of SwipeFiles, called this out when I voiced support for the email Expensify CEO David Barrett sent to his company’s email list of 10 million people.

I wholeheartedly agree with Corey’s point—the last thing I want it to feel like my company is misrepresenting my beliefs. He doubled down on the point, asking me how I’d feel if I received an email like Barrett’s, except in support of Donald Trump (we’ll get to that). But the point that’s immediately relevant and interesting to me here is the idea that a business—because of its diversity—is exempt from the same levels of responsibility that we expect from individuals. It’s a case of “We can’t please everybody, so we’re not going to please anybody” that makes this idea troubling to me personally.

On the flip side, I completely see and appreciate the idea that, “If businesses just don’t go there, it’s easier on everybody.” Which really brings us back to our first point—you’ve got to find your line. 

Don’t brands make collective decisions for groups of individuals all the time?

The other fascinating point here is there’s very clearly a “don’t speak for me” mindset that individuals often have when considering that their company might share viewpoints that don’t jive with their own. It’s often a visceral reaction—I feel that! But this is worth further exploration, especially when you consider that companies speak and make decisions on behalf of their employees all… the… time. 

In fact, in many ways that’s what a company is! Businesses choose who they do business with, decide on compensation, decide where to invest their dollars, send countless emails, and contribute to causes that many of their employees may not agree with… on a daily basis! In fact, most have hierarchy and very intentionally designed decision making procedures specifically constructed to enable them making decisions when all of their constituents don’t agree.

For some reason this is viewed as “how business is done.” If you see something you don’t like, you grit your teeth and carry on because the business is bigger than yourself and that’s what your leadership team decided. Why is this line of thinking so commonly accepted, but suddenly gets rejected when the topic at hand has even a whiff of a political or social lean to it? Next thing you know everyone is acting like their hair is on fire. 

I’m not sure, but I think these are lines of thinking we should all be reflecting on.

Share your perspective as an individual, not as business

The follow on to Corey’s point is what I found in all my discussions to be the most commonly held belief—that individuals, including CEOs, should be encouraged to share their opinions as individuals but shouldn’t use their company’s resources to do so. Peter Caputa, CEO of Databox, is one of the very people that inspired me to share my own opinions openly—and he clearly feels this way.

Rand Fishkin is another person whose wisdom prompted me to speak up, yet is one that actively pushed back on the idea that a business should remain neutral. To his credit, he’s put his money where his mouth is and Sparktoro has chosen to be vocal about social issues as a business

Corey, Rand, and Peter are all bright people and I empathize with each of their perspectives, despite their differences.

But aren’t we missing out on an opportunity?

So far I’ve talked a lot about finding the line where your business feels almost obligated to speak up. When I published my perspectives online earlier this year, it wasn’t because I wanted to—it was because I very much felt a sense of obligation to do so. But lost in this discussion is a very important point—being driven to action only by extenuating circumstances is a problem in its own right. Natalie Nagele, CEO of Wildbit, voiced this opinion beautifully when she recently reflected on her company’s first 20 years in business.

Her perspective here delves back into our last point—businesses aren’t some sort of invisible, separate entity operating in isolation out there in the world. No! They are societal structures that people created. They hold enormous power that can be put to good use, and it’s a missed opportunity not to do so. She also hints at our next topic—there’s an actual business benefit to be had in having a perspective!

Consumers connect with brands that have a perspective on a deeper level

Perspective: Marketer

Ultimately I think it’s important that businesses don’t choose to speak up about social or political issues because they see a business opportunity in doing so—the entire point of my previous posts is that there are topics that should transcend political lines. There are topics of fundamental human decency that should unite us all. 

But with that said, another interesting angle to consider—especially when I tie on my “marketer” hat—is that consumers undeniably connect on a deeper level with brands that dare to have a perspective. In the tech world we see this daily, as our team members strut around in Patagonia T-shirts that cost $75 a pop. Are the T-shirts that much better than the alternatives? No! Of course not. But people line up to buy Patagonia and pay a premium because the brand’s commitment to protecting the environment resonates with them.

There are countless other examples, but the point is the same—we all want to feel like we are part of something bigger than us. We all want to feel inspired. We all know more than ever that we vote with our wallets, and that’s something that brands and marketers also need to consider.

When I made this point to Corey Haines, he asked a great follow-up question that I’ve been thinking on since.

As I’ve turned this question over in my head, its brought me back to the point that for some reason we make a delineation between companies and the people behind them. I don’t fully understand why, but I think my own opinion is that’s not a terribly useful distinction.

We think of Elon Musk and SpaceX as one and the same—the same can be said of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, or at a start-up level Josh Pigford is Baremetrics just as Rand Fishkin is Sparktoro. I think I already look at the people behind the business, as the business. For better or worse, I think this is pretty common.

If the brands of the future are going to be more willing to openly share their perspectives—and will connect with prospective buyers more effectively in doing so—you have to consider that there’s an opportunity cost in not doing so regardless of which side of the line your perspectives fall on. There’s a market for brands with every perspective imaginable.

The responsibility of a company to its financial constituents

Perspective: Business owner / CEO

Sticking with the topic of how this relates to business performance, perhaps the most common argument for a business remaining neutral is that business likely have a diverse set of customers—if sharing a corporate perspective alienates customers, the business’ financial performance could suffer. 

I also empathize with this point—how could you not? I think anyone that’s been in a leadership position understands that by speaking out, especially on topics like politics, companies often put themselves between a rock and a hard place. David Barrett clearly experienced this first hand after sending his email, and this is the type of backlash Brian Armstrong was trying to avoid when he decided Coinbase would remain neutral.

Another related argument that Y-combinator founder Paul Graham and others have made, is that by staying neutral business performance will be improved simply because there will be fewer distractions. That appears to be Brian Armstrong’s line of thinking. I don’t know whether that proves to be true or not, but again you need to consider whether or not the line that you’ve identified has been crossed. That’s the acid test and the point at which you can’t just turn a blind eye because it could benefit your business financially.

There is a very clear and reasonable lens through which you can say, “The job of a CEO is to protect the financial interests of his or her stakeholders”—in many ways that is true!

But I think this brings us back to the point that we’re somehow relieving businesses of the basic responsibilities that we’d expect from any other person—and I think you can make a counterpoint that computes…

Whether it’s the financial obligation of a public company to its shareholders or a private company’s responsibility to generate a financial return for its investors, those responsibilities are a direct result of decisions made by people. The business is not its own entity that was forced into serving these constituents—in fact every business out there deliberately signed up to serve its stakeholders based on decisions made by human beings. 

The other point here is if you’re a CEO, your board or investors or leadership team chose you to be the CEO and make these types of calls—it’s literally your job! So if you choose to protect the financial interests of your business above all else, that’s fine—just be open and honest about that. It’s when leaders don’t do so and instead hide behind their mission statement or the “business” in general that they come off as unauthentic.  

The breach of confidence argument

Perspective: Consumer

A final perspective worth considering is that of the consumer. Our inboxes are already inundated with spam and countless messages that we don’t want or need; the last thing we need is every business shoving their perspectives down our throats!

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with this—you’d be hard pressed to find a marketer more protective of their customers’ inboxes than me. Corey Haines directly raised the spam issue with me.

I think Corey and I actually agree here more than this interaction may suggest—without question the last thing we need is more spam flying around, and Corey’s point is a good one that what may not be considered spam to me might be spam to someone else.

I think that brings us back to the point about finding your line—I’m not suggesting that businesses communicate their opinions on politics wily-nily. I generally think some level of discretion and neutrality, under normal circumstances, is a good thing. But when that line has been blatantly crossed, I think hearing about it from the companies that you do business with is anything but spam. That’s when brands show their true colors and I welcome that in spades.

For Drew Haines, Founder of HoursLogger, the issue isn’t solely one of spam but also represents a breach of trust.

I think this is a good point in the sense that few of us become customers of a company expecting to receive their political opinions in our inboxes. That’s undoubtedly true, but I think it should also a reason for some reflection—why am I receiving this (abnormal) message? Ultimately if a business feels strongly enough about something that it’s acting in a way that it normally wouldn’t, that’s something that I’d want to know about as a consumer whether I agree with the perspective or not.  

Why I chose to speak up for the first time in my life

Before I conclude, I do want to share a bit of my own decision making process and why I decided to publish the articles that I did. I’m not doing so to push my thoughts on anyone, but rather to illustrate how I considered the points above—and I’ll also highlight why neither David Barrett, Brian Armstrong, nor myself got this totally right.

I ultimately chose to speak up because my own line was crossed—blatantly, consistently, and without question in the following ways. Some of these reasons are more compelling than others.

  • Donald Trump has been consistently and intentionally trying to make it harder for Americans to vote at every turn. Intentional voter suppression is a blatant attack on democracy and flies directly in the face of everything America is supposed to stand for.
  • Donald Trump has consistently lied to the American people about Coronavirus, saying it will magically “disappear.” Four times the number of Americans have now died from Covid-19 than died during the entirety of the Vietnam War.
  • Donald Trump is, whether you like him or not, a pathological liar. He has demonstrated over and over again that he’ll say whatever he needs to for political gain with no sense of ethics or decency. For me, we need to expect far more from our leaders and can’t condone such behavior.

While these reasons represent crossing my personal line, I didn’t get it all “right” by any means publishing the posts that I did on behalf of my company. Here’s what I think myself, David Barrett, and Brian Armstrong got right and wrong.

What Brian Armstrong, David Barrett, and myself all got wrong 

As I share these thoughts, make it known that I don’t have all the information on what exactly went on behind the scenes at Expensify or Coinbase, although I certainly have this context at Outseta. I think Brian, David, and myself were all trying to do the right thing, but like most aspects of business, we can learn from this experience for next time. I’ll start with myself and Outseta.

Outseta

I published two posts on our company blog, both of which were bylined with my name but were published on our company website. In the second post, I am speaking for our company directly and not just myself.

In both cases I initially wrote these posts myself, then shared them with our team and asked if they’d be comfortable with me publishing these on our company website. I made it very clear that I’d be willing to publish these elsewhere as an individual.

We have a small team and everyone was supportive of me publishing these posts—I even got a lot of useful feedback on improving the posts, which we knew would be controversial. I think I made the right call in how I went about this.

As opposed to David Barrett, I chose not to send these articles to our email list—which I typically hit with the other blog content that we produce. My worry was that I would be forcing my opinions on people, so my thought process was that I could instead share these posts on my own (and Outseta’s) social media channels. People that follow me or Outseta have quite intentionally signed up to hear from us, so I figured they could discover and read these opinions there if they wished in a less obtrusive or more opted-in fashion. I feel mostly neutral about this—part of me wishes I had sent these to our email list.

What I think I got wrong was the spirit of my posts focuses too much on Donald Trump’s character. I talk about his lack of ethics and basic decency a lot, and how we should expect more from our leaders. That’s my opinion and the primary place I was writing from, but when I talk about “crossing the line,” Donald Trump has had far more flagrant and indisputable transgressions than a failure of character. Intentionally suppressing people’s ability to vote—in a democracy—is one example. I think my case would have been more compelling and could be seen as less of an opinion and more factual if I’d hammered on those points more.

Expensify

David Barrett’s post, whether you like it or not, shows enormous guts—he’s standing up for what he believes no matter the consequence. How can you not respect that?

I’m told there was an awful lot of internal discussion about his email and it was essentially approved by the larger Expensify team prior to him sending it. I think that’s important. What I think he got most “right” is really directly calling out voter suppression as the primary issue, and how this flies directly in the face of what a democracy is supposed to be. And he also cut to the chase and didn’t mince words—he’s trying to get you to vote for Biden. He was much more forthcoming about that than I was. 

There’s two things I think Barrett could have done better—one, his email is so direct and so pro-Biden that I think it was immediately alienating for a lot of people. I happen to agree with him, but I think many people probably didn’t even get into the meat of his arguments before discarding his email. His tonality probably could have been more balanced, which might have made his arguments more effective.

Second, I think it’s important—especially in the context of a large organization—that if you are using company resources to make a stand, you make it absurdly clear that you’re open, willing, and actively encouraging others internally to do the same. If someone else at Expensify had published an email or post alongside Barrett’s showing an alternative perspective, I think we’d be talking about Expensify as a wonderfully progressive business that encouraged respectful discourse both ways and led by example in doing so.

Coinbase  

I give Brian Armstrong some credit for taking action and addressing the topic, but my issue with his approach is his action was inaction weakly veiled behind his company’s mission statement. If he just said, “We’re going to remain neutral to protect our business’ financial interests,” that would have been much more authentic leadership and despite disagreeing I would have respected that decision.

The other thing Armstrong failed to do is read the room—man-oh-man did he fail to read the room given the current climate in this country. 

This is what “Core Values” are supposed to be for

I hope this exploration of what I believe is an important topic has helped you consider the question of when businesses should take a stance on issues from the perspective of a CEO, an employee, a marketer, and a consumer. It’s without question a topic that presents different challenges depending on the position that you occupy in relation to a business. 

I’ve mentioned “mission statements” and the idea that consumers connect on a deeper level with brands that have a perspective, but words that haven’t crossed this page yet are “core values.” That was very much intentional—the importance and use of core values has been covered countless times in the business world—that was not my intent in writing this article.

Core values—not a mission statement—are supposed to be the guiding posts that help businesses make decisions when the going gets tough. They’re supposed to be where we turn in times like these. However, far too often—especially in tech—core values end up just being pretty concepts packaged up in a online wiki after a 2-day leadership offsite.

“We strive to create simple experiences!” just doesn’t go very far here. We need to think more about the broad range of circumstances that might require us to lean on our company’s core values when we are crafting them.

Having real, meaningful core values will help you attract both customers and employees who share the values that you hold as a business. This is literally the type of circumstance that they are designed for! Consider that as your company discusses topics like “finding your line,” and use them to bring transparency to your decision making processes.

If Coinbase had a core value akin to ”Performance First” and Expensify had a core value like “Provide equal opportunities to all” the messages coming out of their companies could have been more clearly justified.  But my Co-founder Dimitris makes a good point when he says, “I don’t like core values that include platitudes like “Integrity” or “Honesty” because it’s not even worth stating as a value. It should be self evident.” Defining these values so that they are useful in driving decision making isn’t easy.

The entirety of this topic is emotional, messy, and as we’ve seen, often painful. I hope that this post will serve as a sounding board for some business leader to consider as they think through their approach to this topic.

Pretty much the only conclusion I’ve reached without hesitation is this—this is a topic that businesses can no longer ignore.

——

What’s your take? Let me know by leaving a comment below or find me on Twitter.

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