A notable and sometimes controversial Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises once quoted, “The mixing of politics and business not only is detrimental to politics, as is frequently observed, but even much more so to business.” While Von Mises’s words provide the kind of black-and-white guidance that can provide reassuring clarity, they perhaps reflect more his era (1881-1973) than today, where viral social media campaigns and “vote with your wallet” efforts can shift consumer sentiment overnight.
The reality is that in today’s world, navigating the do’s and don’ts of business and politics is far more nuanced and requires a thoughtful approach. As you evaluate whether your company should take a stance on a political or social issue, here are some things to ask yourself:
• How does this fit in with my company’s mission and vision? Your company’s mission is its reason for being and its vision is how you can get there. At its core, ask yourself why your company exists and who does it serve? By taking a political stand or stance on a social issue, does this strengthen our ability to achieve our purpose, deliver our products or services and serve our customers?
• Does this align with our core values? Renowned researcher, author and podcast host Brené Brown said “living into our values means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them.” Your core values are three to five key tenets that are yours and your company’s nonnegotiables and they can be used to help guide everything from hiring and firing decisions to whether to take a position on an issue. If you haven’t yet identified your core values, Brown has a great list on her “Dare to Lead” website (brenebrown.com/resources/dare-to-lead-list-of-values)
• What is our brand promise? Consumers have a seemingly ever-increasing array of choices of where to buy goods and services and the need for a company to elevate itself above the competition is incredibly important. Central to this is your brand promise — or how you communicate to your customers “why” they should buy from you. As you consider taking a public stance, ask yourself whether this aligns with your brand promise? This is especially important to consider with regards to your existing customers who are bought into your brand promise — will it turn them off or strengthen your bond with them?
• Do I know what is at risk? Recently I received an email from a law firm in Portland whose newsletter I subscribe to because they offer a lot of affordable small-business legal services. In it, they took a very clear stance on a political and social issue that was important to them. In that email they stated “We’ve been told not to take a stand on this issue and others. That’s not only not productive for society, that’s not who we are. You may be looking for a law firm with different beliefs. Great, we are looking for clients who believe …” and they went on to reiterate their support for their political belief. This clearly was an organization that knew they were taking a risk, calculated that risk and decided that there were either enough customers who would support them, or that losing some would be OK. Can you afford to lose income? Have you weighed the impact of mitigating potential fallout? Or are you, like the law firm example, confident in your approach?
• How does this align with my employee culture? If you have employees that you are trying to retain or are looking to attract new employees, you will likely discover that your workplace culture is a key part of that. Will taking a political stance align with the values of your current employees? Can you afford to alienate any of them? Sometimes taking a position on an issue can strengthen your employee culture. A great example of this is the clothing company Patagonia. Their clear stance on climate activism is evident throughout their website including their “Careers” page where it states, “We’re looking for highly motivated, unconventional thinkers to join our mission. If you love big challenges, taking action and want to help preserve the wild places where we play, see our open jobs.”
The truth is that in today’s economy, there is no black-and-white answer to the question on whether your company should take a stance on a political or social issue. Even a 2020 Harvard Business Review study that surveyed 168 managers across industries, as well as advanced MBA students, discovered that people are less swayed by corporate advocacy than has been widely reported — surprising the researchers themselves!
So, as we would counsel any business owner who comes into the Small Business Development Center asking for advice on this topic, first think through how doing so fits with your mission, vision, brand promise and culture and then take the action that you feel best supports your goals and comfort with risk.