Americans are in the middle of one of the most important government transitions of our lifetimes, but one thing is likely to remain constant: the divisive political atmosphere that's intensified over the last four years won't be going away.
Along with Benn, as Mode’s leaders, we’ve been doing our best through this tough year to keep our team steady and to make progress in service of our customers and our mission. But like most of you, as soon as I log off, I’m anxious about the uncertain future of our country, angry over the lies and mistreatment that go on without consequences, and sad that the divisions in our communities are only widening. I struggle to find the right tone—one of optimism and celebration for how the company is doing while still acknowledging the challenges we all face outside work.
It’s easy to get caught up in my own challenges and lose sight of the bigger picture. But two recent blog posts reminded me of the role a company can play in contributing and responding to our political climate. We can’t reverse the division of our country—the division in our families—without active participation from America’s corporations.
Politics exist at work whether we embrace or condemn them
The two posts that hit me hardest sit at opposite extremes: one from Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and one from Expensify CEO David Barrett.
Brian Armstrong’s post starts by acknowledging the tough circumstances, then quickly pivots to a message about performance and focus, featuring a shot of the ‘90s Chicago Bulls. He writes “We don’t engage [with social issues] when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.” It’s clear that this was meant literally: just don’t talk about politics at work, and the company won’t either. He continues:
"I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments. They want to work on a winning team that is united and making progress toward an important mission. They want to be respected at work, have a welcoming environment where they can contribute, and have growth opportunities. They want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world." — Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase
I understand the temptation of this approach. Every startup has to deal with countless challenges; why add politics to the list?
But before answering that question, consider what “politics” means to you. Is it a hobby, an allegiance, something you like to debate with your friends and on social media? Or is it what determines the neighborhood you live in, the job you can find, how you’re treated on your commute, what schools your kids can go to, and if you can stay in this country?
Politics is only the former for those of us for whom the world is generally agreeable. We fit into the default and see politics as those things that might disrupt that default. But for many people, this isn’t the case. “Politics” isn’t the distraction; the world—especially this world, this year—is the distraction. To ask people to leave politics outside of the office is like asking them to leave their own skin at the door.
Moreover, companies have to make political choices. Even Armstrong’s Coinbase does. Armstrong cites four areas for Coinbase to focus on; three of them call for diverse and inclusive hiring practices. Given this, it’s hard to imagine Coinbase outlawing Pride attire in the office. But given their stance on politics, Coinbase would likely discourage people from wearing MAGA hats to work. Though I believe different treatment is entirely appropriate in this case, that decision is political—it’s making a stand that one thing is okay and the other isn’t. This is a stand that companies should take. We better serve our employees by acknowledging that.
David Barrett went a big step further, urging the Expensify community to vote for Biden — he saw it as his responsibility to the company:
"As CEO of this business, it’s my job to plot a course through any storm — and all evidence suggests that another 4 (or as Trump has hinted — 8, or more?) years of Trump leadership will damage our democracy to such an extent, I’m obligated on behalf of shareholders to take any action I can to avoid it. I am confident our democracy (and Expensify) can survive a Biden presidency. I can’t say the same about Trump. It’s truly as simple as that." —David Barrett, CEO of Expensify
I suspect this message had a much greater impact on the relatively few people who work at Expensify than on the voting masses. What Barrett did was, in effect, communicate his resolve in this particular point to his own employees—he showed them that it mattered enough to him and to the company that it was worth taking a risk. Even if he didn’t change a single person’s vote, this is the right kind of risk to take. It’s right because the orientation of Expensify’s employees (or those of any company) determines how the company will build its products, and in turn how it will impact the many people who use them.
Corporations have influence that can stimulate change
Corporations have an outsized influence on the division of our country. The Social Dilemma highlights the role that Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks play in shaping our viewpoints. It’s a simple, but dangerously self-perpetuating cycle: People engage with views like their own, social networks serve them more of those views, content creators create increasingly polarized content, and the two sides push further and further apart.
Social networks aren’t the only relevant companies. Over the past few years, we’ve seen countless examples of ethical challenges stemming from corporate data collection and use from Apple’s “sexist credit card” to Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement. Our products and actions often have unintended consequences, and the first step in minimizing them is to acknowledge that they exist and then develop and communicate clear stances on them.
Barrett’s opposition to Trump doesn’t outright prevent Expensify from having the exact same kinds of issues Apple did with their credit checks, but it does tell employees that they should care, and that caring is not just good for the company—it’s good for the world. Without that care, problems like Apple’s are guaranteed—it’s just a matter of time.
Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman argued that only people have social responsibilities, and a business’ only responsibility is to generate profits, but that’s no longer the world we live in. Corporations now have dramatically more power in Washington than they did in the 1970s. The reality of American politics today is that oil companies, for example, must behave in some altruistic way for us to make real progress on climate change. Facebook and Twitter must take it upon themselves to build in a way that unites us because regulatory capture is too powerful for change to happen any other way. Corporate leaders need to recognize their power and recognize that if they don’t lead, nobody will.
Consider this a call to my fellow CEOs: let’s acknowledge the politics that exist in the workplace. Pretending otherwise opens the door to unhealthy workplaces and harmful products. We should instead make clear where we want our companies to stand, and shape them to produce better outcomes for the world.