top of page

When does a CEO take a public position on a political matter?

New label on Patagonia regenerative organic stand-up shorts

Tough question isn’t it? We live in a time when those in power have decided to make it difficult to vote during the pandemic, perpetuate racism, put children in cages, ignore climate change, and govern women’s bodies by legislating bans on reproductive rights. Now more than ever, current and prospective employees want to see executives take public political positions that will guarantee their physical, psychological, and financial safety during their employ. A good answer requires ongoing education and considerable contemplation from CEOs and rising leaders.

Bold moves lead to loyal customers

Last week, Patagonia launched a line of men’s and women’s "regenerative organic stand-up shorts" with a clothing label that says, “vote the assholes out.” Company spokesperson, Tessa Byars said that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has been saying that for years. "It refers to politicians from any party who deny or disregard the climate crisis and ignore science, not because they aren't aware of it, but because their pockets are lined with money from oil and gas interests."

This isn’t the first time Patagonia has taken a public stand on a political issue. In April 2019, the company stood up to the burgeoning bro culture in the finance and tech sectors. The self-proclaimed “activist company” refused to sell their fleece vests to businesses who were not in alignment with their values. Patagonia made a statement explaining that they decided to co-brand their vests with “Certified B Corporations, 1% For The Planet members and other mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet.”

At first it may seem like a bold move to turn down business. However, if your core market becomes disenfranchised with the brand, customers could easily choose another option. In this case, one line of revenue had to be eliminated to prevent the loss of more significant streams of income.

Power in numbers

On June 10, 2019, corporate leaders took a stand against bans passed throughout the US restricting access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. A total of 187 CEOs bought an ad in the New York Times that said, “Don’t Ban Equality. It’s time for companies to stand up for reproductive health care.”

Chief Executives from Yelp, Slack, Square, Tinder, H&M, Ben & Jerry’s, Warby Parker and Seventh Generation are just a few examples of established enterprise companies who signed on. In unison, these companies made the point that brands who sell to women and hire women don’t want to undermine their rights as individuals and alienate them as consumers. It’s wrong, and it’s bad business.

In December 2018, Greenwald & Associates surveyed 1,007 adults and found that 90% of millennials say reproductive health is an important issue to them. Two-thirds say it is very or extremely important. Reproductive health is a good example of an issue that companies will have to pay attention to because it is so important to current and future employees.

When hundreds of other leaders have already stuck their necks out, it makes it easier to take a public ethical position. Add your name to the “Don’t Ban Equality” statement here.

Will you be silent or vocal?

PR firm, Webber Shandwick conducted a survey in 2017 that revealed that 47% of millennials believe that “CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society.” During a presidential election year, employees (of every age) will carefully observe the political parties, candidates, and policies supported by company leadership.

For example, if donations and endorsements are made to candidates who are racist, sexist, or misogynist, how can an employee trust that the company they work for has their best interests in mind? When considering public support of candidates and new policy, look to organizations such as the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center to understand the problem, opportunity, and the right thing to do.

Employees will be very interested in learning about the people and issues leadership supports. Get in front rather than let the rumor mill define your position.

Get the timing right.

If an issue comes up, such as banning women’s reproductive rights, be aware that there are precedents. CEOs from mature companies and scrappy startups alike have taken public political positions in the past. There is a good chance employees will want to hear from you. More importantly, they will want to see how the C-suite goes about communicating with legislators.

Here are a few ways that company leadership can take a public position on a political issue: add your name to a petition and share the petition with staff and allow them to add their name if they choose. Write a letter to an elected official and share it with your staff. Share a post on social media explaining why you and/or your company does or doesn’t support something. In an all team meeting, bring in experts to discuss the topic and explain the company’s position.

Salesforce does a nice job of bringing in people to talk with employees about important issues. In 2015, they were one of the first companies to speak out against Senate Bill 101--the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). There was a groundswell of support from the LGBTQ community and allies for their actions.

Startup founders have the edge when it comes to tackling important political issues. From day one, founders can decide the types of issues that they will support. They can prepare and train board members and investors on why they have chosen to take positions on issues that will be important to employees.

As we get closer to November 3, 2020, CEOs, founders, and C-suites should prepare to spend time thinking and discussing political issues that affect employees. Developing a strategy to address political issues both internally and externally will help the team navigate hot topics as they surface during a highly contentious presidential election.


bottom of page