Why Politics and Business Don't Mix

Executives and business leaders should be aware that expressing their views by nature exerts pressure on employees and associates to conform.

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By Steve Tobak

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During a presidential election cycle, you're bound to be confronted with political chatter wherever you go. The problem is that politics often comes up in work situations or online, where your reputation is as transparent as Donald Trump's hard-hitting rhetoric. If you talk, blog, tweet, or post about politics, your leanings won't be secret for long.

The question is, is it a good idea to be forthright about your political views? And is the answer different for current or aspiring executives and business leaders? Here's a story that will help you answer those questions.

My first move into the executive management ranks was as marketing veep at Cyrix, a Dallas-based microprocessor company. Strangely enough, we had a politician on our board of directors – former U.S. Congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp.

The former NFL star was at the time heading a congressional commission set up to study tax reform to boost the economy. The so-called Kemp Commission proposed a simple flat tax with large enough personal and dependent exemptions so low-income families wouldn't be penalized.

Being fairly apolitical in those days, I really couldn't care less whether the guy was a Democrat or Republican, but I was thrilled to get to know one of the great quarterbacks from my childhood at our annual strategy meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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During a relatively intimate dinner at the home of our chairman, a VC named Berry Cash, Kemp – who had failed in a presidential bid against George Bush in 1988 – thought it would be fun to go around the table and see who each of us thought the GOP should nominate for the '96 election against Bill Clinton.

If you were watching me at that moment, you would have seen me turn white as a ghost. I had absolutely no clue who the candidates were. And, as the newest member of the leadership team, I was terrified of standing out like an idiot who had no idea what was going on in our nation's capital in front of my boss, my peers, and a couple of famous VCs, not to mention the big guy himself.

Luckily, the impromptu focus group began on the other side of the table, so I more or less repeated what someone else had said and escaped without damaging my young reputation at the company. That was the first time I'd ever felt any kind of political pressure in my career, but it wouldn't be the last.

A year later, our CEO sent out a company-wide email encouraging us to get out and vote. That was nearly two decades ago and, while I can't recall the exact content of the message, I remember it sounding highly partisan – right-leaning, of course. And as the company's head of marketing and communications, that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't think it was right to pressure employees to conform to some sort of corporate political standard and I still don't.

Over the years since, I've become far more interested in politics – primarily in terms of the effects of federal regulation, taxation, and fiscal policy on businesses, corporations, and our nation's economy. And today, I am a fiscal conservative who believes strongly in free-market capitalism and small government. The irony is that I now find myself in the far more left-leaning Silicon Valley area. Go figure.

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In any case, I make it a general rule to never discuss politics in a work or business situation, and that practice has served me well over the years. To my knowledge, nobody I've worked with has ever felt any kind of pressure to conform. Likewise, I don't believe I've ever missed out on any business opportunities because of my personal views on politics.

Granted, writing commentary does sort of change the equation and, in that sense, I'm certainly not shy about making my opinions known. But keep in mind that I've already had a long, accomplished career, so I'm not nearly as concerned about how people see me as I was decades ago. At this point I have little to lose, but I doubt if that's true of you.

We live in a divisive era. Our views on partisan politics and a broad range of sociopolitical issues tend to be quite polarized. And while there are points where fiscal policy and business intersect, executives and business leaders should be aware that expressing their views by nature exerts pressure on employees and associates to conform.

Likewise, if it's early in your career or you're a budding entrepreneur, it's not a great idea to limit your potential by unnecessarily declaring where you stand on controversial issues, unless of course you don't mind losing half the opportunities available to you in an already highly competitive world.

If, by chance, the words "If my views bug them that much, I don't want to work with them anyway" come to mind, consider this. They may just want business to be about business and to keep the political drama out of the equation, which, if you stop and think about it, is a pretty sensible and professional objective.

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Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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