As the U.S. presidential elections draw closer, I’ve noticed that many businesses, whose products and services have absolutely nothing to do with politics, are either posting about or interacting with political content on social media.
And I’m not talking about office politics here. I am referring to real-world—“Is Trump the reincarnation of Hitler?”—politics.
I’ve been seeing this manifest in several ways on different sites: Facebook pages sharing political memes; a small business engaging with my disparaging tweet about a candidate; and even a video on LinkedIn by the chairman of an international agency, which features one of the front runners for the presidential nomination.
Funny enough, the post right below that last one was titled: Does Political Rhetoric Belong on LinkedIn? The author of the article asks a good question that applies to any business, especially online:
“Why is there political discourse on a site designed to foster professional connections and impart best practices in numerous areas?”
Why should your business stay away from politics?
Among topics like sex and religion, politics is just one of those things that you don’t discuss at the office, business meetings, company events, etc. Nor do you write or post about it on the Internet. And, if you’re the boss, you should never, ever pressure employees into political action—be it attending a rally or actually voting. This is just plain common sense, yet people continually find themselves either instigating or subjected to these situations.
I know it’s hard to avoid discussing politics, especially when it’s the main talking point in the media. I recently made the mistake of indulging a client who brought up the 2016 caucuses. Luckily we have similar political leanings and opinions, but it started getting awkward when the discussion wandered to a particularly contentious topic. We both realized where the conversation was heading and simultaneously changed the subject.
Different political persuasions are enough to divide families, so it is certainly not a safe subject to introduce in the workplace, where it can create a hostile and volatile environment. It’s important to understand that even brief, offhand comments or questions about candidates, policies, outcomes, etc. can lead to a heated debate and perhaps even an all-out office war. Similarly, a seemingly harmless action, such as liking a controversial post on Facebook, can put you out of favour with business partners, colleagues, prospects and current/potential customers.
Still not obvious why you should avoid politics in business? Let’s break it down:
- Politics is inherently divisive: even small differences in opinion can halt a budding professional relationship in its tracks, or foster an atmosphere of animosity between co-workers.
- If you’re not very familiar with an election topic, for example, and bring it up with someone who is, you could end up looking very foolish. If you do want to do this, though, don’t state any claims without having all the hard facts on hand.
- You never know if the person that you are talking to—be it a potential client or even your own boss—was, is or will be officially involved in certain policies, campaigns or elections. They could even be related to a candidate!
- 99% of the time, your political inclination has no influence on whether you can do your job well or not.
If someone insists on bringing politics up—either directly or through small talk—try to stay as neutral as possible. If you can, quickly steer the conversation in a different direction. I also see no problem in being candid and saying that you’d prefer not to discuss it (in a polite and friendly manner, of course).
If you are forced into such a situation, just stick to the indisputable facts and avoid laying all your opinions out on the table. If you think that you’re missing out on a work opportunity just because you don’t want to engage in political talk, then you need to re-evaluate your professional priorities anyway, and consider whether it would be a good idea to enter into business with someone who pushes others into such talk.
As for me, I usually make it clear that I have no interest in politics (which is only true half of the time!), but I wouldn’t recommend others doing it because this sort of response could make you seem like a liar, apathetic or simply unengaging.
Why would you want your business to participate in politics?
One common argument is that politics affects the corporate world. Although true, it’s not reason enough to get involved, especially when weighing the risks.
However, I think there are and should be exceptions to the “no politics” rule, like when advocating for certain issues, especially those concerning human rights or the environment. For example, after the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, numerous international brands took to social media to show support for the decision, much to the chagrin of many customers, who threatened to stop purchasing from these businesses.
This might be fine for high-profile companies, but not for startups and small businesses. So you have to know your audience incredibly well before you engage in politics (or issues tied to politics) as a business, or else be successful enough that a loss in consumership is not the end of the world. You should also be very careful of blurring the boundaries between supporting certain policies and partisan politics.
There’s something else to consider. You—as a manager, CEO or owner—might not get political; however, some of your employees may want to (and they have a right to, outside the office). In anticipation of this, it’s best to have company regulations that cover political opinion and advocacy during work hours.
Remember that chairman I mentioned earlier, who posted a political video on LinkedIn? Well most of the feedback on his post consists of criticism—aimed at him for posting it on a professional network, and because it clearly shows his support for an infamous candidate. There are even comments subtly attacking his character.
The bottom line is that people tend to take politics personally, which makes it harmful to business. It’s therefore wise to stay out of it unless, of course, your business is politics.