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Technology and politics: Leaders in tech navigate an age of corporate activism, polarization and political participation

Amazon employees gather at The Spheres on the company’s Seattle campus in 2020, asking for paid time off to vote. (GeekWire File photo / Taylor Soper).

Tech leaders found themselves in a heated political debate after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Many companies such as Seattle’s Redfin changed policies to cover expenses for workers who travel across state lines for abortion care.

Redfin employees applauded this decision. Others quit.

This is a great example of the new environment that tech and business executives must face in an increasingly polarized nation that votes Tuesday for its midterm elections.

It is gone a time when businesses were required to be politically neutral but still have a clear focus on their business.

However, the rules for managing this increasingly politically charged workplace are still largely unknown.

Redfin’s business nature puts it in an especially difficult position. The Seattle-based company’s technology workers tend to be liberal and often expect the company to champion progressive causes. Redfin employs a number of real estate agents throughout the United States, most of which lean conservative.

Glenn Kelman is the Redfin CEO and he tries hard to make Redfin a welcoming workplace for all. But in an interview with GeekWire he acknowledged, “sometimes you do have to make a controversial decision.”

Executives feel trapped in the political environment. The new generation of customers and workers expect their employer to be more politically engaged. But any role a CEO holds could result in some people being alienated. In an age of polarization, many people view political neutrality as spineless. Additionally, political punk bags are often created by large corporations that seek neutrality in elections. 

The political nature of workplaces

Over the decades corporations have largely restricted their political involvement to lobbying behind closed doors, and speaking out on economic issues that directly impact business such as taxes or minimum wage requirements. 

That all changed during Donald Trump’s presidency, when companies began taking unprecedented political action on topics with little direct connection to daily business operations.

Amazon, Microsoft, and others threw their weight behind lawsuits challenging Trump’s immigration ban and efforts to rescind DACA. Hundreds of companies spoke out against racist police violence in the Black Lives Matter protests. Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce have all fought against state-level antitransgender laws.

This trend can be explained in part by customers’ and employees’ expectations.

Aniran Chandravongsri Protest 1
Aniran Chandravongsri, a Google cloud software engineer in Seattle, speaks out against a contract Google and Amazon struck to provide technology to the Israeli government during a Sept. 8 rally at Google’s building in South Lake Union, Seattle. (GeekWire File photo / Tony Lystra).

Tech workers in recent years have called upon their employers to adopt bold positions on issues such as cutting carbon emissions and providing technology for the military. This group of employee activists files shareholder resolutions, hosts walkouts, circulates petitions, and seeks influence from company leaders. 

Users and customers sometimes join in the battle to boycott companies’ products because of corporate policies. According to surveys, the majority of consumers believe that companies should play an active role in politics. A 2019 survey by Global Strategy Group of more than 800 adults revealed 78% believe “our government is broken and corporations need to step up and help make positive changes in our society.” Of those surveyed, 80% said “corporations should take action to address important issues facing society.” 

But there is a wide partisan split over the issues that companies should be addressing. Only 34% said that corporations should address transgender issues, as compared with 65% for Democrats.

Here lies the problem for corporate leadership. It is possible to resist the temptation to become political, but not alienate your employees and customers.

In the age of polarization, political agnosticism

Companies are reacting to current political climates by encouraging political agnosticism. This requires employees and managers to be neutral about hot topics at work. This approach is not without risks.

In 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong famously implemented a policy forbidding political debate and activism in the office, offering severance packages to employees who wouldn’t comply. About 60 employees, or 5% of Coinbase’s workforce, quit and the move received both praise and sharp criticism. Several of Armstrong’s peers spoke out about the policy, including former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who said, “me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business are going to be the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution.”

Kelman will only take public positions on political issues that are relevant to his company’s mission.

“Political leaders are trying to put businesses in positions where we have to be on one side of a debate or another and employees, especially younger employees have followed that lead,” said Kelman, CEO of Redfin since 2005. 

Despite some companies’ efforts to remain politically neutral, CEO activism is on the rise, according to a review by Harvard researchers Aaron Chatterji and Michael Toffel.

“Smart CEO activists typically choose their issues; the issues do not choose them,” they wrote. “To avoid being blindsided by a news story or awkwardly weighing in on a topic they know little about, CEOs should sit down with their executive teams, including their chief communications officers, and decide what issues matter to them and why.”

This advice is not enough to address the problem of CEO activism. The politics of the C-suite don’t always align with those of the employees.

“I think people should vote at the ballot box, not on company policy.”

An analysis by Stanford University of 600 technology companies in 2017 found that executives are more conservative about how they handle money. free The New Republic calls this “the politics of Silicon Valley” — liberal in areas like human rights and regulation. The New Republic calls this “the politics of Silicon Valley — a distinctive mix of liberalism and libertarianism.”

However, these workers tend to be more to the left when it comes to a wider range of issues. This can sometimes lead to conflicts between management and employees.

Even if those clashes don’t occur, executives set the tone for a company. It can be a good thing for a company to have a leader who speaks out on both sides of the political spectrum. 

Executives and employees — together or separate?

Employees could get involved in corporate politics. An example is that employees can elect a committee which will determine what candidates and issues they support publicly. All employees can vote on the spending of company funds.

Tom Freeman is an activist who has been a part of the Democratic Party for over 40 years and heads the customer innovation team at Freeman strongly believes in democratizing political speech as a way to advance the careers of tech leaders.

“We need a mechanism of developing a consensus within a company before taking a political position,” he said. Freeman later added, “I would argue that the future looks a lot more like a transparent process as opposed to one that was created in the backroom.”

Executives may find it difficult to convince them that more democratic and open political engagement is the way forward. Kelman warned that approach could create a “tyranny of the majority.”

“I think people should vote at the ballot box, not on company policy,” he said. 

INRIX is a Seattle-area company that analyzes traffic. It aims to be neutral by inviting candidates from each side to talk to its employees. 

“At INRIX, we try to be a-political, and purposely do not get involved in political debates or take sides in particular issues,” CEO Bryan Mistele said in an email. “Our goal is to show respect for all our employees, who we recognize are all over the political spectrum and let them engage personally on issues that are important to them. Having said that, we will host national and statewide candidates who reach out to us and want to speak to our employees.”

Last month Mistele shared a photo on LinkedIn of himself and U.S. Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley at the company’s headquarters.

“She would bring a breath of fresh air to Washington, and I’m proud to support her,” Mistele wrote.

Mistele explained that this post was not for the company. “Everyone should be free to support causes and candidates from their personal social accounts without fear of being harassed or targeted,” he said. He added that the company has hosted “a variety of candidates over the years,” including Sen. Patty Murray — Smiley’s opponent — as well as former Gov. Christine Gregoire, and Rep. Suzan de Bene.

Freeman, the tech worker and Democratic Party activist, commented on Mistele’s LinkedIn post and said it “looks like an INRIX endorsement” and “should be a big red flag for any auto or municipality thinking of engaging with INRIX.”

This post highlights an issue executives face: how to exercise their rights of political speech and not implicate the companies that they run. Chatterji & Toffel, Harvard researchers that study this issue, think it may be impossible.

“Though CEOs first have to decide whether they’re speaking for themselves or their organizations, they should recognize that any statements they make will nonetheless be associated with their companies,” they wrote. “We have seen almost no CEOs successfully separate themselves from their firms in this way.”

What should technologists do in this political maze? Experts recommend taking a cautious approach and using a strategic strategy. Chatterji and Toffel suggest defining a “compelling narrative for why This To address issues This The CEO This business at this time” and making sure the message is “authentic to both the individual leader and the business.” 

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