Those of us of a certain age remember a silly song called the “Hokey Pokey,” in which people start by putting their right leg in, then their left leg, and on and on with their arms, hips, head, and backside--until the last verse, when they put their “whole self in” to do the Hokey Pokey.
I reference this to set up an interesting conversation I listened to last week between Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business; and Alison Taylor, executive director of the NYU-affiliated Ethical Systems.
They were talking about the growing polarization in the U.S., and what role business could play in helping to bridge the widening divides that are threatening to tear apart the country.
Companies who have been advocating for their employees to bring their whole selves to work may want to rethink that notion, so the workplace becomes a neutral space where people with differing backgrounds can come together to work on the goals of the business, said Haidt.
“We need to go back to the idea that you shouldn’t bring your whole self to work. We are here to do something together, something great, or something that’s going to create an amazing product, serve our clients in amazing ways,” said Haidt. “Keep your focus on the mission.”
He pointed to certain universities that have official positions they don’t take sides on issues, so they remain a place where “people can work things out.”
If businesses can generally stay away from taking positions, and try to depoliticize issues, they “can be the kind of place where people learn to work with people who have differing political views without hating each other," because they have a larger overarching mission and identity.
“I think businesses could be like no-combat zones, or places where people can get to know each other,” said Haidt.
Taylor supports the idea of businesses being non-political spaces, and believes people with differing views need to learn to work together, but noted it’s not easy--or even practical--for companies to straddle the fence on controversial issues in an age of employee and shareholder activism, where one wrong move could prove fatal to the company’s reputation and bottom line.
It’s important to note, she said, the distinction between a company saying it is neutral on politics, and then looking at what it does in terms of its political contributions, as the rhetoric of neutrality often doesn’t line up with what the company is doing with its money.
“What I think has changed is the use of business voice,” said Taylor, as what was the implicit agenda of influencing politics becomes more explicit. While that’s had problematic consequences, it’s led to more transparent discussion about the degree of consistency between what a business says, and where it puts its money and investments, and who it does business with. “That’s actually very positive.”
On the downside, it is incredibly dangerous for the organizational culture of a business to start to act like governments, and for them to see their customers and employees as the electorate.
“Business is not cut off from the dynamics of society, so the trouble is, now you can try to take a neutral position and say you’re just going to focus on our shareholders...but neutral stances are seen as political nonetheless,” said Taylor.
She cited as a recent example the company Coinbase, which received blowback after it told employees they no longer would be allowed to talk about politics at work. Some employees resigned rather than accept that restriction.
“That middle ground is no longer a safe place to be,” said Taylor. “It’s become an incredibly risky place to be. In reality, doing nothing is, in itself, now something political.”
It’s a very interesting debate, and it will be fascinating to see how companies react as pressure mounts from all sides to do what those constituencies believe is the right thing.
(Please listen to my Principled Podcast conversation with Taylor.)
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About the Author
Joined LRN in October 2018 after 30 years as a journalist, including seven years at The Wall Street Journal, including Risk & Compliance Journal and was a creator of the WSJ Crisis of the Week column. In 2015 was named one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics by Ethisphere Institute. Spent 14 years as a reporter in Hawaii, 11 with The Associated Press.More Content by Ben DiPietro