The Professional Has Become Political
Employees are ready to get involved, and want their employers to stand up with them. Here’s why that’s actually a good thing for business.
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As the White House scrambled to react to Dobbs v. Jackson, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would cover up to $4,000 in abortion-related travel for employees. Why was a retail chain known for selling basketballs and boxing gloves ready with a more coherent response than the head of the Democratic party? Because, as the company made clear when it stopped selling assault-style rifles after the Parkland shooting, its leaders know that business decisions have political consequences. And while not every CEO wields the influence of a 50,000-person retail giant, right now, every decision made by every CEO is political.
With abortion now illegal or under threat in half the country, every corporate leader’s job description just had “advocacy” added to it without their consent. Whether they lean right or left, CEOs aren’t just responsible for their employees’ healthcare: now, they’re also responsible for reproductive care. If a pregnant employee has a medical emergency on a business trip, will their employer help them travel to a state where they can get the care they need? How will the company respond to lawsuits in states with abortion bounty laws? And if the conservative court goes after gay rights, what will that mean for LGBTQIA+ employees? Will those same companies cover the full cost of healthcare for newly-annulled marriages, or bail out employees who’ve been jailed on sodomy charges?
Customers overwhelmingly support reproductive justice: 86% say it’s “important” for brands to take a stand, on par with issues like gender equity, racial justice, voter rights, and gun control. The same holds for employees, too. Recent polling found 85% of employees believe their employer’s public support of Roe will help attract and retain talent. And the Great Talent Reshuffle of 2021 wasn’t just about salaries or flexible work: increasingly, top candidates, who are always in demand, want to work for leaders who are aligned with their sense of morality. Even amid a looming recession, 57% of employees and 70% of executives are seriously considering quitting their jobs, with many focused on shared values over total compensation.
Employees upset about leaders’ vacillating responses to social issues aren’t just quitting: they’re also speaking up. As states attempt to prosecute women for seeking abortions, tech workers at Google, Facebook, and Amazon demanded the companies deny abortion-related data requests from law enforcement. During the Kavanaugh hearings, Facebook employees decried what they saw as Joel Kaplan’s right-wing favoritism. And with an extremely online workforce now addicted to Slack, tech firms from Shopify to Coinbase are reckoning with the impact of semi-public forums where employees are empowered to talk back.
While it’s tempting to chalk up employee activism to young, idealistic workers with a Grass-is-Greener mentality, the reality is more complex. As economist Albert Hirschman explained in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, an organization’s loudest voices often come from its most loyal members. Engaging in political issues isn’t just good for recruiting; it’s also a way to retain the most passionate and motivated employees.
This may sound like a brave new world, but it’s not. If you‘re a business leader, you already know how to get involved in politics. If you need help developing a political strategy, just ask the experts who advise your company (or your investors) on public policy. You’ll find a rich body of experience, one that includes more than just engaging in public statements of solidarity and mobilizing in times of crisis, but also organizing across local, state, and national elections.
The question, of course, is where to start. One obvious place is defending majoritarian rule: advocating for new laws to safeguard our democratic institutions, and electing candidates who are willing to stand up for democracy. If that feels risky—if you’re imagining standing up, losing, and having to deal with a Republican president willing to punish companies for disagreeing with them politically—you should have all the proof you need to start here, and take a stand while you still have the chance.
Best of all, you don’t have to fight alone. Many of those same employees eyeing the exits are ready to take action, if the company is ready to support them with the resources they need. Along with providing care and time off for employees affected by abortion bans, that could mean giving employees Thursday, Friday, and Monday off before election day to go canvass in a nearby swing district or volunteer at the polls. It could also mean an email after Labor Day reminding employees they can spend their “20% time” on high-impact projects for pro-democracy candidates like John Fetterman and voting rights organizations like Fair Fight. If a designer or engineer gets in early enough, their skills can help make or break a race. Most importantly, it means making sure employees are certain they won’t be disciplined for speaking and acting publicly in support of a campaign.
While legal may push back, the law is clear: an employer granting a request for time off or a leave of absence to work on a political campaign is not a contribution, as long as approvals aren’t based on partisan preferences. And Citizens United, the decision that opened the floodgates of Super PAC money that helped overturn Roe, also gave your corporation the freedom to flex its own political muscle. Your company already knows how to lobby for its business interests. But organizing to defend your shared values is just as critical to its long-term success. And what you learn through engaging with reproductive justice can (and should) inform how you engage with other issues where the majority of your customers and employees agree.
Thinking this way might feel a bit uncomfortable; you may worry about alienating people whose support the business needs to thrive. And it’s reasonable to try and unify your team under an apolitical corporate mission. But positions like protecting our democracy and our freedom, including the right to an abortion, aren’t just popular with half the country—they’re the mainstream. That’s why Dick’s, even after losing millions in gun sales, made it back in apparel. And it’s why to retain talent, stay competitive, and keep the economy free enough to do business, you'll need to reconsider how to engage with the issues that matter to your employees.
Every company chooses how to fit into capitalism. It can go with the flow, or it can take a stand when it matters. Right now, it matters. And an apolitical company, in a post-Roe world, feels as quaint as an apolitical court.
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