Why politics and work don’t mix


October 15, 2012

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

Sex, religion and politics may be taboo topics for so-called polite conversation. But as the 2012 presidential election nears, a handful of CEOs apparently aren’t worried about workplace niceties.

In recent days, several CEOs have reportedly voiced their own political views, at times indirectly warning employees about higher health-insurance costs if President Obama is re-elected. In another case, a CEO apparently said his company will have a hard time remaining independent if Obama is re-elected, while still another made implications that a vote for Democrats means a vote for “higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.”

The CEO of time-share company Westgate Resorts, perhaps best known for his quest to build the “American Versailles,” even went so far as to say his company would have to cut jobs or perhaps shut down all together. “My motivation to work and to provide jobs will be destroyed, and with it, so will your opportunities,” the email reportedly read. “If that happens, you can find me in the Caribbean sitting on the beach, under a palm tree, retired, and with no employees to worry about.”

I’ll leave any potential legal implications of such statements to others. But suggesting employees vote one way or another—especially if dire consequences are named—is not just impolite conversation. It can be deeply corrosive to an organization’s culture.

For one,  leaders who try to tell employees how to vote (even if they can’t really force them to pick one candidate or the other) risk making people with different beliefs feel alienated in their own workplaces. What’s worse, such language can foster fear at a time when the last thing employees need is more to worry about. Telling your employees that an event beyond their control will prompt job cuts is a surefire way to destroy productivity and guarantee that every poll result or political gaffe in the news will become an instant workplace distraction.

Also of concern is the effects such political speech, or implied commands, can have on the kind of open-ended debate and tolerance for dissent that’s essential in any healthy organization. In a company where the CEO has so clearly shared his or her political views—and indicated, implicitly or explicitly, that employees should share them, too—people are likely to be terrified of making comments that could be unfairly interpreted the wrong way. (Bring up office recycling efforts in a budget meeting? He’s a Democrat! Engage in water-cooler complaints about high taxes in your paycheck? You’re a Republican!) If that leads to a more nervous, clammed-up culture, it’s not just political discussion that’s likely to remain below the surface, but real problems with the business as well.

Building inclusive, tolerant cultures that encourage dissent and discussion of any kind would seem to be leadership 101. The risk of making a culture fearful and apprehensive about the outcome of a national election is a recipe for lower productivity and a distracted workforce.  Everyone’s entitled to his or her own views. But for CEOs leading a company, keep them to yourself, or at least between you and your accountant.

More from On Leadership:

Must-read leadership profiles of Paul Ryan

Must-read leadership profiles of Joe Biden

Silicon Valley’s latest management challenge

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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