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How do you avoid workplace divisiveness when your CEO is political?

6 min read


I talked in late 2012 with Beth Carvin about politics in the workplace and what companies — and human resources — can do to steer workplace policy on talking politics while managing “politically verbal” CEOs, particularly in the aftermath of the 2012 election and the start of a presidential and congressional term. Carvin is the CEO of Nobscot, which offers online exit interviews, mentor-matching software and other services designed to help companies and employees “make the world a better place to work.” The interview below has been edited and condensed.

James daSilva: If you were working in HR or were an HR consultant, and [a Fortune 500] company CEO had been vocally political¬†… Is there a common thread in that, that any of those sort of actions can rile workers, or is some CEO political opinion OK or not an HR worry?

Beth Carvin: That’s a good question, and I’ve talked to a lot of people on this topic, and we have not ever really discussed the part of, “When is it OK?” And I guess I would look at it as a spectrum in how you approach it. Certainly … some CEOs have made donations, personal donations, and it’s been public, or have spoken at one of the conventions. And so they’re showing that they’re supporting a particular candidate.

I think the biggest problem is when it’s being forceful about a particular position in a way that encourages people to debate in the office. Debating in the office always derails. The country is very divisive right now. I mean, it’s been bad — I first started writing about this topic in the 2004 election, and I was saying how divisive the country was then. And let’s just say it has not gotten less divisive since then.

And I would say it’s gotten more divisive. And so these discussions that take place in the workforce, and particularly if it’s started by a CEO, create a lot of negativity. Companies, employees need to work together for the most part when we’re talking about a work situation. You need to work together, you need to respect each other, you need to have teamwork, you need to focus on common goals. And if people are fighting or name calling or getting to the point where it turns into bullying, to some degree, it’s very difficult them to go back and work together. …

So with an outspoken CEO, we need to really explain, HR needs to — any decision that CEO or senior leadership makes, HR should be there to say the pros and cons of how that decision will affect the employees. And this could be a decision that’s about an acquisition — any kind of business decision affects employees. And HR’s job is always to step up and say, “These are the pros; these are the cons. Do with it what you’d like.” So the situation [of CEOs and politics] is no different; a politically outspoken CEO should be reminded about how it will affect the people, the employees. And, in general, it’s good to remind people you don’t generally change anyone’s mind.

Basically, the idea would be when a company or a CEO is speaking or acting politically, or directing a company in a political matter, it should be treated like any other strategic decision, where you wouldn’t move forward with a strategic initiative without involving HR and making sure they were in the room, basically.

Or at least thinking about those issues. If you take it to a smaller organization, it’s the same thing. Because politics is on everyone’s mind doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your company when you speak about these things. So, yeah, you’re absolutely right, it has an impact.

And as a CEO, one of the things that the good CEOs know and the not-so-good CEOs don’t know, or new CEOs don’t know, is that everything you say is listened to in a very different way from other people. You’re the CEO, and all of a sudden, when you speak, people listen, and they hear it in such a different way than when you were a manager in the organization.

You can’t help it. We’re human. CEOs are human, and they’re just venting their thoughts like everyone else. But you have to be a little more controlled, you have to bring your maturity, you have to find that maturity and professionalism within yourself and know to bite your tongue. Or, choose to live with the consequences.

And so, to close on maybe a positive note, what’s a company or companies that have sort of done this the right way? That are not afraid to have beliefs or opinions or are known for their lobbying, and point of view, but have done this in a way that they keep their shareholders happy, keep their workforce happy, keep their public reputation going and also keep HR from having fits?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that question, because I believe it’s probably best to keep the political discussion out of the workplace. It’s not relevant to the job at hand, and you have all of your life outside the workplace to discuss, share your views and all of that. So I feel that you’re asking for trouble in bringing it into the workplace. … To do it well is to not discuss it and to encourage people to respect each other’s viewpoints and not bring it into the workplace.

So, the idea is distinguishing between a company that lobbies Washington on certain issues — distinguishing from that sort of lobbying activity and the idea of then everyone talking about their personal political beliefs while at the workplace.

Yeah. Your own personal beliefs are just not — it’s encouraging other people to have the same viewpoints as you. And it’s hard to hold your tongue. I’m interested in politics as well. It’s hard to hold your tongue, but you have to remember what’s appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace. So, my feeling is to try to keep it out. Even if you’re a small company, and 75% of the workforce is all of a similar political persuasion, and you guys want to talk and laugh and have fun and make fun of the other side, what of that 25%? Are you being respectful of that 25%? You’re really not.