Should businesses weigh in on political controversies? According to a recent Gallup poll, the general public is closely divided on the question, 48% in favor and 52% opposed. Not surprisingly, young people are friendlier to the idea — but even their preferences are more nuanced than a single yes-or-no question can convey.
That’s one of the findings of a new study from Wake Forest University’s Center for the Study of Capitalism. Coauthors Christina Elson and Kylie King worked with YouGov to survey 2,000 people aged 18 to 41. In generational terms, that classifies the respondents as either Millennials or Gen Z.
When Gallup asked young people whether “businesses in general should take a public stance on current events,” most said yes. But the Wake Forest University study revealed more subtleties. “Businesses in general” is obviously a broad description, and the phrase “a public stance on current events” could mean different things to different people. One respondent might be thinking about a multinational manufacturer and another about the sign shop down the street. And one respondent might be thinking about race relations or LGBT rights while another might want businesses to weigh in on transportation, tax policy, or school reform.
To get more specific, Elson and King tested this proposition: “The CEOs of big businesses should be more involved in solving social problems.” A plurality of young people (43%) liked the idea while 29% were opposed and 31% described themselves as neutral. The professors also tested this one: “People should keep their personal views on social issues out of the workplace.” Most Millennial and Gen Z respondents actually said yes (56%), with 19% against and 26% neutral.
Moreover, when it comes down to choosing where they want to work, most young people quite sensibly say salary and benefits are the most important considerations (64%), with another 20% picking flexibility of work schedule, 11% opportunities for advancement, and only 5% picking a prospective employer’s “involvement in social issues important to me.”
Both surveys confirm that older folks with conservative views tend to be the least in favor of business leaders involving themselves in public issues. I’m a conservative in my 50s, so you might guess that’s my view. But it isn’t — at least not precisely.
In today’s world, I suspect it is simply impossible to maintain a strict separation between politically charged debates and the workplace. Unless employers were to police the virtual and in-person interactions of their employees and customers to a degree that would verge on oppressive, I don’t think they can forbid such conversations from happening. I’ve also spent much of my career encouraging business executives to be more vocal in support of free enterprise, infrastructure reform, and other critical issues that shape the business climate.
We don’t need silence from our civic leaders, be they in the public or private sectors. We need prudence.
One prudent practice is to stay in one’s lane. It’s rarely going to be constructive for the head of a tech company to spend company time or resources lecturing the rest of us about abortion or the war in Ukraine. But it would be entirely appropriate, and probably instructive, to hear from that CEO about the quality of science education or how housing affordability affects her ability to hire talent.
As for hot-button social issues, while they are best discussed outside the workplace, leaders can through counsel and example help their employees and customers accept the inevitability of good-faith disagreement when such issues do come up. Across a wide range of subjects, it is possible for two people to reach different conclusions without either being ignorant, stupid, or evil. To assume otherwise — and certainly to allege otherwise — can ruin conversations and preclude persuasion.
Our public discourse has become coarse, unproductive, and deeply unfulfilling. One reason is that we’ve over-politicized so many aspects of our lives, including the workplace. Prudent leaders can help change that by speaking both more constructively and less frequently.