Early on in my career, in my first sales position, I was coached by my experienced boss to avoid the topics of politics and religion. Stick to business, or when socializing and building relationships with customers outside the workplace, stick to safe topics – sports, travel, food or, if all else fails, local news and weather. I have generally tried to apply this advice to business.
In my role as CEO I want all employees, regardless of their political and religious views to be comfortable in our work environment. Frankly, I want them to be focusing on work and not be distracted by discomfort based on their views or the views of others. The reality of a startup, however, is that when you work long hours with people over an extended period of time it becomes forced to not to even acknowledge these topics. We need to find a healthy balance of communicating naturally but still keeping the work environment comfortable for a diverse group.
A couple of incidents recently reminded me of this issue. The first is my own. In my office, in a corner between my computer screen and whiteboard, was a small Barak Obama poster. This poster has a Hebrew/English double-entendre on it as it says “Yes We כן” where or “כן ken” is Hebrew for yes so it is both supporting Obama as well as a two-state solution for peace in the middle east. I bought the poster, admiring its cleverness, and had it shipped to my office (intending to bring it home) and I forgot about it. A few weeks ago I had a business meeting in my office with someone I had just recently began working with. We have gotten along very well so far but the reality is that the relationship is new. He noticed the poster and commented on it. We didn’t argue politics – he told me his views – absolutely the polar opposite of mine – which he held quite strongly. I couldn’t help but think that I moved down a few notches in his esteem and even if that were not the case – probably half the time for the meeting was taken up by this discussion rather than the more important planned agenda. I was kicking myself for even having the poster there – frankly I had forgotten about it and this carelessness was unfortunate.
A company in our industry has been having a dramatically negative consequence from its involvement with politics. Carbonite has been a long time advertiser on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. I suspect (but have no real data) this was not politically motivated and simply a desire to acquire customers. Advertising with him is particularly attractive for direct marketers because it is not just a regular ad – he recommends the products that sponsor him and that recommendation is extremely powerful with his listeners. Rush has always been somewhat controversial and probably turned off some potential Carbonite customers but clearly they concluded that the net was positive. His recent extreme statements against the Georgetown law student alienated even many conservatives. Carbonite was then in a no win situation. Keep the ads and suffer the backlash or cut the ads and get some backlash from the other side while likely losing sales. They faced a “damned if you do damned if you don’t” scenario. They, like most others, pulled the ads and while they got some positive feedback on their blog their stock took a tremendous hit. It’s not clear the net effect for them and won’t be for some time but it leaves a bad taste for many.
These are tricky waters to navigate. I want employees, business partners and customers to feel comfortable with SugarSync and trust us to be fair and professional. Yet I want us to have a human side as well and humans have opinions, political affiliations, religions and views on sticky social issues. We want to be true to ourselves at work yet not offend others when the main focus of our interaction is professional. Like many tricky topics, the most important first step is awareness and consciousness.