As a Business Owner, Should You Make Your Personal Beliefs Public?

This story appears in the June 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Q: Based on the backlash I’ve seen against business leaders who were open about their takes on social or other issues, I feel like as a company owner I have to keep my personal beliefs secret. That doesn’t seem fair. What do you think?

A: A company’s leaders are never truly off-duty. What you say and do, even after business hours, reflects on the company you lead. That’s only fair; leaders derive much of their social standing and place in the community from their company roles. 

If you take sides in a polarizing social or political issue that makes employees, customers or other stakeholders feel marginalized, disrespected or antagonized, it could have an impact on the business. That doesn’t mean you should stay quiet, but you need to really think it through—and talk to stakeholders—before taking a public position on a controversial issue.

First, make sure you have all the facts. Discuss your position—and your plan to go public with it—with key stakeholders. Give them the chance to fill you in on their views on the topic and any concerns about your speaking out about it. If they ask you to hold off, pursuing your position could jeopardize your leadership credibility. 

But if your take on the topic is a stand the board or investors believe is consistent with the company’s mission (and they are prepared for any consequences), then it’s essential that you communicate with your employees and customers about the principles you are addressing, encourage dialogue and offer up some common ground to offset any us vs. them feelings that may crop up. 

Q: Every nonprofit within a 20-mile radius of my company has me on their donation prospect list. I have investor responsibilities and don’t feel the business is on solid enough footing to give money away. But some of my team members have expressed concern that we aren’t being socially responsible and that we appear indifferent to the community. Others say not giving money to causes makes outsiders think the company isn’t successful. If my staffers are so worried about these causes, I feel like they should donate their own time or money and let it go at that. Am I being fair?

A: Consider social responsibility as enlightened self-interest. In other words: Acting out of concern for the welfare of the community can benefit your business in many ways, including creating more engaged employees, increasing customer loyalty and, possibly, resulting in a bump in profits. (More than half of the respondents to Nielsen’s social-responsibility survey say they are “willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.”) 

But giving doesn’t have to mean ponying up money. Donating time to your community goes a long way, too. Once you step up, others will perceive you as a community player, and you’ll be able to define how much time or money you want to give, knowing that as your business grows, so can your donations. Skip out on helping out, though, and your company’s reputation and relationships could take a hit. And no, it’s not fair to ask your employees to shoulder all the burden of helping out in the community. 

So, it’s time to have a talk with your investors and employees about what giving back might look like. Do you set aside money to respond to clients’ donation requests? Do you match employees’ charitable donations? Do you ask employees to identify one cause that speaks to your company values and mission and rally behind it? Do you join with suppliers in a special project you may be uniquely suited to accomplish? 

There are many options. You can start small. But … start something. 

Edition: October 2016

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