Recently the President and CEO of a U.S. company, Basecamp, issued a directive banning employees from discussing politics at work while using company-messaging tools.  Jason Fried apparently called these discussions a “major distraction”.  In a blog post he is quoted as saying “Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant”. The company apparently offered employees up to six months severance if they could not abide by this decision.  In response, 20 employees tendered their resignations.

On the surface Mr. Fried’s decision may sound controlling or even dictatorial.  However, what it underscores is the growing politicization and even polarization in the workplace, and an increasing tendency to broaden the definition of politics to include more than just partisan affiliation.

We live in changing times

I admit to being very politically active.  I grew up in a political household, and I have actively campaigned on behalf of many candidates since high school.  Earlier in my career I worked in the Ontario provincial government, and while I often personally disagreed with many of the decisions of the governing political party I went along with what they proposed.  As an employee, I recognized that I owed a duty of loyalty and fidelity to those who paid my salary.

However, the concept of political engagement and participation has changed a lot over the past ten years.  Political involvement is no longer framed in the context of an individual’s support for one political party or candidate over another, but rather, by the politics of identity. Politics has become increasingly polarized. Labels are commonplace and hastily applied, and are often assigned based not on ideological grounds, but rather, by virtue of race, colour, creed, religion, gender identification and adherence to what some describe as the “woke agenda”.  Not surprisingly civil discourse has been rendered obsolete.

A rise in workplace political activism poses a challenge to businesses' viability and employee freedom of speech (Photo courtesy of Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels)

A rise in workplace political activism poses a challenge to businesses’ viability and employee freedom of speech (Photo courtesy of Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels)

How we got here

If companies now bemoan the politicization of the workplace they really have only themselves to blame.

Take for instance employment equity. When the federal government passed the Employment Equity Act in 1987, and instructed federally regulated employers to report on, track and encourage methods to improve representation levels of the four designated groups, federally regulated industries quickly adapted policies and programs to conform.

What has emerged since though has been a dizzying array of initiatives that command increasing amounts of company and employee time and energy to maintain.   It no longer involves merely tracking representation levels or financial support for scholarship programs and job postings targeted towards certain designated groups.  Now we have days of awareness campaigns, resource groups, diversity and inclusion training, etc.

Another pet cause for senior management has been the propagation of Corporate Social Responsibility.  Originally it started out as a focus on environmental sustainability and responsible business practices.  Over time, that shifted towards adherence to International Labour Organization standards on employment practices and human rights.  Suddenly, executives began attending ILO conferences and subscribing to the goals and ideals propagated by an international trade union conglomerate.  We have minimum wage laws and legislation governing employment standards.  Why should we care about whether it subscribes to an international standard?

My jaw dropped several years ago when I learned that my boss at the time wanted to attend a Refugee Conference in Germany.  Why, pray tell, would a representative of a Canadian financial institution be attending an international conference to discuss refugees from Syria trekking through Europe in countries where we didn’t have operations?

Today’s workplace is a lot different.  The incorporation of a broader social agenda into business objectives has led to an intensely politicized workplace.  Senior management no longer focuses just on making a profit or enhancing workplace productivity.  Overnight, the conflation of broader social values with the strategic business plan has led to a workplace characterized by adherence to a much broader social agenda and set of ideals. Companies now pander to the political convictions of a vocal few, and to compel adherence to corporate direction and create unanimity there is renewed pressure for all employees to “tow the line”.  Everyone is now expected to pay homage to the new ideals regardless of whether you subscribe to them or not.

Equally fascinating is the rise in social media advocates who are able to exert tremendous public pressure on businesses to conform.  Not content with just promoting their ideals many of these influencers openly advocate for broader public policy changes while directly trying to influence the actions of businesses directly.

A case in point is Mike Lindell, the owner of My Pillow, a pillow and bedding manufacturer based in Minnesota, and a long-time supporter of President Trump.  Not only was he dropped from Twitter for purportedly spreading doubts about the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election, but also many retailers subsequently dropped his products from being sold in their stores based on fear of customer reprisals:

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Mr. Lindell’s opinions is not the issue.  The fact remains that he, like anyone else, is entitled to his opinion, regardless of how right, wrong, fictional or deluded it may be.  He also has the right to operate his business.  As an individual customer if you don’t like his politics or his message then don’t buy his products.  However, to pressure retailers and distributors not to stock his products on threat of incurring unrest, loss of business or inviting public censure is hardly fair.

Is dissent even possible anymore?

What happens if an employee doesn’t subscribe to their employer or co-workers’ ideals?  How do you reconcile a situation where an employee’s religious or philosophical values conflict with the stated goals of the organization for which they work?  What happens when employee dissent is silenced, or when employees’ interpretation of issues or programs differs from that of their employer? Does senior management have the right to tell employees who to support politically or how to vote?

The fact is that employees owe a duty of loyalty to their employer.  They have an obligation to safeguard their employer’s property, assets and information.  They have a right to act with integrity, and to not embarrass or threaten the well being of the employer. Beyond that there is nothing that says employees must subscribe to the social or political ideals of their employer.  If the employer wants to support a political cause or champion an issue that is their prerogative, but there is nothing in the rulebook that says you, as an employee, must automatically champion their political or social causes.  Sadly, in our current climate, heaven help the employee who stands up and challenges the merits of a corporate program, or refrains from attending a company sanctioned event or donating to a particular cause, because they feel it conflicts with their personal values.

True diversity isn’t measured just by the colour of people’s skin, or their religion, or their language.  A truly diverse workplace entails diversity of thought and opinion.  It recognizes that in a workplace increasingly focused on forcing conformity and subjugating dissent individuality is severely compromised.  When we lose dissent we also lose the capacity for independent thinking and civil discourse and disagreement, and it puts everyone’s civil liberties and freedoms at risk.

Colour me cynical

Colour me cynical but there is something innately hypocritical about companies that proclaim support for ideals such as fairness and equity while customer service representatives in their organizations barely eek out a minimum wage and senior management pocket millions of dollars in bonuses and stock option plans.  I find it hilarious that Bank executives extol the importance of mental health awareness programs while managers in their ranks exert inordinate pressure on front line staff to meet quotas and engage in intimidation and unethical sales tactics to upsell products to unwitting customers.  Sending corporate executives to ILO conferences that preach about human rights while employees in their Third World subsidiaries are paid a pittance isn’t just bad optics but its also bad policy.

If business is going to talk the talk and insist on employees subscribing to certain political principles and social ideals then they had better learn to “walk the talk”.  Having CEO’s pocket salaries and bonuses that are 350 times higher than what is earned by the lowest paid employee in their ranks is not just hypocritical but it borders on criminality.

A Final Thought….

Jason Fried’s decision took a lot of courage.  As the owner of a growing business he recognized that his employees needed to focus on what was critically important and not be distracted by side issues. He appreciated that the focus of his business was growing his operation and not battling social issues.  When an inordinate amount of time and energy is siphoned off and re-directed towards political discussions it distracts from the critical priorities at hand.  What employers and employees do in their off work hours is their business, but during work hours politics should not detract employees from doing what they are paid to do.

Years ago, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman made reference in their book ‘In Search of Excellence”, to the concept of “stick to the knitting”, and not get distracted by peripheral activities.  It’s a concept that deserves a serious second look.