The Business Ethics Alliance hosted another discussion in its Mind Candy series on Tuesday. The topic: business and politics and how they mix. As a member of the Business Ethics Alliance Board of Trustees, I was really happy that such a potentially toxic topic was being explored. It’s not only timely, it’s one that can be tough to talk about without hurting feelings. The polarization that exists today, especially at the federal level, clearly trickles down into many political conversations. Oh, how I pine for a good, healthy conversation, which occurred on Tuesday.

Personally, I’m politically engaged and my views have strengthened over the last few years; the latter largely a function of digging deeper into the issues and actually talking with our elected officials. I love talking politics and am working with a few teams of people on select local issues. Team Verdis has infrequent informal political discussions, but we’ve never really explored the ins and outs of one another’s views in a meaningful way. I think we largely agree on most issues, but not all. And only on one occasion have we put the Verdis name out there in support of a cause.

Tuesday’s Business Ethics Alliance discussion provided a great opportunity for the panel and the audience to explore two central topics: 1) to what extent it’s appropriate for businesses to allow (or encourage) political discussions to occur in the workforce, and 2) whether it’s appropriate for businesses to publicly advocate for candidates or policies. The former was deeply explored; we only skimmed the surface of the latter.

A couple of key takeaways and learnings for how businesses should handle internal conversations:

  • Do what’s best for your business and its culture. In some cases, political discussions can build stronger teams, inspire people to work harder, and actually produce more effective employees. In others it’s totally toxic and causes nothing but problems. There’s not a single right way that everyone should handle it.
  • Leaders must be careful not to push their views on employees, either purposefully or unintentionally. Doing so can alienate those that disagree, especially if  you’re not creating a culture that fosters and allows these conversations to occur productively. It’s a delicate balance, and I was impressed with how Rex Fisher handles it at HDR.
  • Generally speaking, society is not very good about handling conflict, and political discussions are no different. Don’t expect everything to be peachy.
  • For employees, some of the best advice I heard was to give them the latitude to have discussions and share their views while making it clear that there are consequences if they cross the line. Most adults have a good sense for where that line is and when they’ve crossed it. Or at least I hope they do.
  • No electioneering. Right on, Hal Daub.

While I found myself nodding my head to much of what everyone was saying, there are a few questions that popped into my head that remained unanswered. In pretty much every case, these questions arose because we didn’t get to explore whether businesses should take political positions and be politically active. I really wish we could have talked about it further. It’s where everything gets pretty dicey, in my opinion. I can handle how we navigate political discussions at work, but I could really have used some insight from the panelists or other attendees on whether or not we should be putting the Verdis name on anything.

Just to offer an example, Verdis formally supported the Equal Employment Ordinance that passed City Council in March 2012. We felt that discriminating against someone just because they are GLBT is wrong. By adding our name to the list of supporters, which was 100+ organizations long and included a few local large corporations, we took a risk. A business owner that disagrees with our views may have looked at that and decided not to call us. Or they may not return a call when I’m hoping to make a pitch. Was it in our best interest as a business to formally support the EEO? In our minds, the answer was yes because we viewed it as a simple issue of fairness.

This leads me to what I think was an unspoken and incorrect assumption from the morning: I think everyone in the audience was operating under the premise that the primary motivation for a business and its leadership is to increase profits. A motivation that likely drives what positions a business will hold when it pertains to regulations that could potentially hinder their ability to be more profitable (e.g., banking regulations. And a motivation that would prevent said business from taking a position on a social issue that they might believe in but doesn’t necessarily directly impact their business (e.g., gay rights).

I don’t think that’s unilaterally true anymore. There are so many business leaders on both sides of the aisle that are willing to sacrifice a little from the bottom line in order to build a better community. This wasn’t discussed, but it could have made for an interesting dialogue.

Social entrepreneurs are often creating businesses out of a desire to solve a social problem, not because they see a chance to build their own wealth. In some cases, the two go hand-in-hand, which is beautiful. I think Verdis falls into this category primarily because our motivation from day one was to have a big impact on protecting the planet. Fortunately for us there’s a very strong business case for sustainability, and when we talk to potential clients, we focus on the business case, not on specific environmental issues like climate change.

You won’t find the term ‘climate change’ in any of our marketing materials for a very specific reason: it’s a polarizing, politically-charged issue. Indirectly we know that if we are able to help an organization take great green leaps, they’re going to minimize their environmental footprint while making more money. That’s what motivates us. So when it comes to deciding whether or not we get publicly in front of a proposed law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we tend to be quiet because we feel like we can do more good by helping businesses make change at their own pace. It’s a bit of a struggle, for me in particular, but for now it’s the right balance. We’ll see where we are in five years.

Onward and upward.