The Political Action Committee Dilemma: What You Need to Know
We're searching for top company cultures to be featured on our annual list. Think your company has what it takes? Apply Now »
Why is Disney, one of the largest corporations, asking its employees for money? Easy -- politics. A few weeks ago, Disney CEO Bob Iger penned a letter to employees, asking them donate to the company’s political action committee (PAC).
Related: Why Politics and Business Don't Mix
The letter asked employees to contribute to the fund to help support Disney's fight over copyright issues, but those employees weren’t easily swayed. Those who leaked the letter told Arstechnica.com they felt it was insensitive in its assumption that all employees shared the same political beliefs. So, where did Disney go wrong? Why did its letter miss the mark?
While I personally don’t support PACs, it is an election year and many organizations may be looking for more employee support and taking more action with their PACs. After all, activity from PACs has risen 45 percent since 2010, according to internal research from BIPAC and Reuters.
For those employers that do support a political action committee, here are few ways you can communicate effectively about issues that impact the business:
1. Keep it compliant.
There are a lot of laws regulating how employers can ask for contributions to their political action committees, and Disney’s letter seemed to follow them.
According to the law, corporations may solicit contributions from their employees as long as they aren’t forced and as long as the employers don't threaten a “detrimental job action” or “financial reprisal.” In other words, employers can’t threaten to fire, demote or dock pay for workers who don’t donate to their PAC.
In Disney's case, the letter clearly reassured employees that their jobs, performance review, pay and status wouldn't change whether they donated or not.
Takeaway: When asking employees to contribute to a political action committee, be careful about the wording. Let employees know explicitly that their decisions won’t impact their job status and relationships with their managers. Consider keeping contributions anonymous to stay compliant with regulations and to give employees a sense of security.
2. Discuss issues, not parties.
Getting contributions to a political action committee isn’t as simple as collecting donations and giving them to one candidate or one political party. Employers are following a new approach called E2E, or employer-to-employee outreach, to avoid alienating employees.
In this strategy, PACs donate to both Democrats and Republicans and base their contribution decisions on the legislation and issues the candidates support; in short, employers donate to those supporting policies that favor their interests. This focus on issues, instead of candidates and parties, seems to resonate with employees -- in 2014, receipts for corporate PACs were just over $1.5 million, but in 2016, receipts jumped to more than $2 million, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Disney’s PAC seemed to follow a similar approach. The letter stated that the company contributes equally to Democrat and Republican candidate each year.
Takeaway: Focus political action committee communications on the issues that impact employees and the business as a whole -- not on party politics. Employees want to know why their donation is needed and what impact it will have, beyond putting a politician in office.
Educate employees on relevant policies and explain why they are important to gain their support. This way, even if employees choose not to donate, they will be better informed and understand why their employer is asking for money.
3. Stay away from gifts.
Employees aren’t always as fired up about the policies employers care about most. So, how do companies convince them to contribute to their political action committee? Answer: incentives.
Offering recognition gifts, or incentives, when employees donate is legal and some large employers reward contributions with preferred parking spots, matched charity donations and other perks. Although these gifts are okay in the eyes of the law, should employers offer them?
I believe employers should avoid recognition gifts; and, interestingly, the Disney letter didn't mention any. r
Takeaway: Offering incentives to those who donate to PACs seems unfair and, in a way, punishes those who don’t contribute. Incentives reward employees based on their financial and political standing, not on their workplace performance, and that might not sit well with their colleagues -- especially those who can’t afford to give or who hold different political beliefs.
So, keep incentives out of it and reward employees for what really matters -- their performance.
4. Tell the whole story.
Everyone does it: News outlets, political parties, labor unions and more publish content and engage in conversations that paint political issues subjectively. Stories may be slanted, policies blown out of proportion, statistics manipulated and facts left out to convey a certain opinion or message.
Employees aren’t stupid. They know when they are being given biased or objective information, and they’re not quick to trust political information. However, the study from BIPAC showed that workers surveyed considered their employers more credible sources of information about politics than political parties and news media.
Although employers may be tempted to present employees only with information that supports their cause, they should respect the trust employees have with them and aim to start a real dialogue on issues important to the company. That’s where Disney went wrong -- it failed to connect and start a discussion with its employees. Instead, it presented only its side of the story.
Takeaway: Although employers can and should inform employees about issues directly related to their industries and organizations, they should aim to present both sides of the story and allow employees to come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions.
Diverse opinions and viewpoints fuel new ideas and drive successful companies, and differing political beliefs are just as important. Instead of flooding employees with information that supports the organization’s political views, provide them with resources on relevant issues and encourage them to ask questions and start discussions.
Explain the company’s view, and why it feels a certain way, but do so while presenting the full story. That way, employees will know their opinions are valued and that their employer doesn’t want to force its political agenda on them.
Does your company have a political action committee? How does it communicate with employees effectively?