Few issues divide companies quite like the place of politics at work. In the age of corporate activism, some have executives who advocate for taking unequivocal positions; others are pushed by activists in their workforce; and still others tell employees that politics have no place around the water cooler.
Public opinion is divided, too: A new study from Gallup finds that Americans are split down the middle on whether companies should take stands on political and social issues. Notably, though, the divide is also generational, with rising millennials and Zoomers more likely to want their company to act.
Like it or not, politics are finding an increasing (and contentious) foothold in the company agenda. So what do leaders and managers need to know before their company starts to talk politics—and how can they tackle the divisions and tensions that come with taking a stand?
Amy Smith, chief strategy and impact officer at TOMS, knows what it takes to launch a position. She helped oversee the company’s first major political stand with a multimillion-dollar campaign for gun control, an issue the company continues to invest about 20% of its social impact spending in today. She told Quartz what companies need to examine before taking up a cause, along with how they can prepare to talk to their workers about it.
NOTES FOR A STRONG STANCE
“A lot of stars have to align when you take a really big stand,” Smith says. She likens it to when a band blows up: If their first hit album seems to come out of nowhere, well, it probably wasn’t the first. It was just the first one on the charts.
That, to Smith, is how a company can be seen as they take on a banner political or social issue. You might need to produce a lot of albums—smaller stances and incremental impact work—before you land a big hit.
TAKING ISSUE WITH TOMS
Few issues in the US have become more polarized, politicized, and rhetorized than gun control. In 2018, a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California prompted TOMS—then best known for donating shoes to those in need—to enter the fray. The company pledged $5 million to end gun violence in the United States, with founder Blake Mycoskie kicking up a year-long advocacy and action tour calling for stricter gun control laws. Not every consumer would be behind the position: At the time, TOMS’s customer base was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
To be fair, TOMS has made mission synonymous with its work, beginning with the signature buy-one, give-one model it launched with in 2006. “I always say this: Everyone who works at Toms works on the impact team,” Smith says. Perhaps, then, you’d expect that TOMS attracts a workforce that wants to see the company take stances on political and social issues. But Smith says she and fellow TOMS leaders faced dissent when they announced the campaign.
So how did they navigate the tension? By giving every worker, Smith says, a space and a place to have their perspectives heard. The key to a strong stand is to lead with authenticity—including authentic credentials, authentic communication, and authentic feedback.
LESSON ONE: CONSIDER YOUR CREDIBILITY
“It’s a hot thing to be doing right now,” Smith says of corporations taking a purpose-driven (and political) position. But she says that companies need to have a hard look at their mission, values, and track record before they’re anywhere near ready for a big—and possibly contentious—stand. In short: You better have credibility.
“Without the foundational pieces of understanding your company values, your purpose, and your ability to be authentic in whatever you choose to do, it’s gonna be really hard to take a stand on something and be credible,” Smith says. Credibility, she says, is the foundation of trust for employees in both agreement and disagreement.
LESSON TWO: MIND THE OPEN DOOR
“All roads lead back to being authentic and being transparent,” Smith says. “And so we did that right away with our employee base.”
An important part of taking on a touchy topic, Smith says, included creating spaces for open conversations and forums. Room needed to be made for emotions. “We were educating ourselves as an employee base about gun issues, which felt really heavy and hard,” Smith says. “So we wanted to make sure we maintained this really open door policy for people to come and ask questions, and learn more—and dissent, and not be aligned [with the work].”
Her only wish, she says, was that she had spent even more time with employees. “My biggest personal learning was we were moving really fast,” she says. “We were trying to do a lot of things in a short amount of time, [and] we were trying to react to a space that moves much faster than giving shoes.”
LESSON THREE: PREPARE TO MESSAGE AND RE-MESSAGE
The critical act of listening, Smith says, came when political rhetoric entered at the edges of the year’s campaign—and surfaced at open discussions.
“Most employees that I interacted with that were feeling dissent [told me,] Well, I’m a gun owner, therefore, I’m no longer seen as a valuable part of this team. And I was like, No, that’s totally not right,” Smith says. The leaders realized that they needed to better articulate the company’s aims, which were focused on passing universal background checks at a federal level. “We weren’t trying to ‘take anyone’s gun away,’” Smith says. So they clarified their message with workers.
Conversations like those, she added, are key to ensuring that employees don’t feel like they’ve been rejected from your shared work. “That distinction was incredibly important for people…to not feel like their values didn’t align with TOMS’s values any longer,” she says. It’s important today, too, she says, as TOMS continues investing in organizations that work to prevent gun violence.
STICKING WITH THE STAND
In Smith’s opinion, purpose is no longer optional for companies. “Being part of something bigger is really important to this next generation of employee and consumer,” she says. “And so it’s just good business.”
That’s why she thinks taking impact-driven stances, even ones that are politically charged, is worth it. “I think as consumer confidence in the government goes down, [people are] looking more and more to brands and to companies to do more,” Smith says. “And we should take that seriously.”
MORE STORIES FOR TAKING POSITIONS
✊ How a new generation of workers has revitalized employee activism
🍦 A brief history of Ben & Jerry’s political ice cream flavors
⚖️ It’s not too late to address Roe v. Wade with your employees. Here’s how.
📣 220 CEOs issued an emotional call for US gun control in 2022
🪧 How corporate leaders can respond to employee activism
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Send questions, comments, and your own stances to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Gabriela Riccardi and edited by Anna Oakes.