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The Fallacy of the Politics-Free Office

Written by Laszlo Bock

Co-authored with Liz Fosslien

he social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” declared economist Milton Freidman in a 1970 essay for the New York Times. Decades later, look where Friedman’s advice has left us: Social media businesses have accelerated the reach and rise of extremist groups, our collective mental health is on a steep decline, and, for the first time, today’s earners will likely be worse off than their parents. As Ford CEO Jim Hackett astutely pointed out, Friedman’s philosophy has “fomented the unsustainable inequalities that plague America today.”

But many corporate leaders still cling to Friedman’s harmful belief. The contentious political climate has even spurred some companies to publicly clamp down on any related discussion. As they see it, talking politics — or simply acknowledging what’s happening beyond the boundaries of the office — distracts people from their work, causes unnecessary internal friction, and, of course, hurts the organization’s ability to increase its profits. “We don’t engage [in broader societal issues] when issues are unrelated to our core mission because we believe impact only comes with focus,” wrote Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, in a recent controversial blog post. Doing so, he said, has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction and by creating internal division.” Following the post’s publication, Armstrong gave employees a week to decide whether they agreed with him and wanted to stay on at the company or take a severance package to leave.

Drawing a hard line between the personal and the professional has always been difficult. Given recent shifts in how and where we work, it is now near-impossible. When professor Robert Kelly’s children popped into his video interview with the BBC in 2017, they foreshadowed the reality that many of us are facing this year.

For the larger part of the year, almost half of U.S. employees have been working from home, eroding what little remained of the porous barrier between our professional and personal lives. With unemployment at an all-time high, racial injustices being exposed, hurricanes and wildfires devastating swathes of the country, and a deadly pandemic continuing to rage through the country, everyone is processing social and economic turmoil. Ignoring the intense emotions is impossible. Asking employees to suppress them at work is cruel.

By mandating that employees keep politics, activism, and their personal beliefs completely out of the workplace, leaders ensure that many people, particularly members of historically underrepresented groups, silently bear a tremendous emotional weight.

These burdens come with meaningful business costs. When people can’t be themselves, every metric a company cares about — productivity, performance, retention — drops. “Surface acting,” or expressing emotions we don’t feel, is draining; science shows that those who do it frequently are more likely to feel stressed and eventually burn out. Underrepresented groups who cannot bring up the biases they encounter in their professional and personal lives are more than twice as likely as nonminorities to feel alone — and to leave their companies within a year. A sense of isolation is among the strongest predictors of turnover.

The days when a company’s “corporate culture” lived exclusively within its office walls are over. Glassdoor lets any employee publicly rate their CEO, LinkedIn enables your competitors to ransack and pillage your top talent, and news outlets regularly publish stories exposing the internal workings of corporations.

Leaders too often lump political discourse and societal issues together. Setting politics aside, companies have an impact on the communities they serve, and therefore, an imperative to think about the wider role they play. The same day that Coinbase published its blog post, Twilio, Zoom, Okta, and Atlassian went in the opposite direction, writing that “the pandemic has highlighted the many ways we depend on each other, both within our companies and across the communities we call home” and pledging to empower employees to commit some of their time and resources to social impact.

Consumers also increasingly care about aligning their purchasing behavior with their values. In 2018, Ivanka Trump had to shut down her clothing line after Macy’s and Nordstrom both dropped her products as a result of a consumer boycott. The same year, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart stopped selling assault-style weapons in response to petitions and protests following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. There is no way to keep the world out of the workplace.

Businesses, like the people they employ, do not exist in a vacuum. They require a functioning society and a large consumer base that has money to spend. They depend on a motivated, engaged workforce that will learn and grow with the organization over time. Failure to invest in any of these aspects is not smart economics. It’s the fastest way to drive profits, people, and our country into the ground.