Mixing business and politics

Taking a stand, the role of business, and 5 links worth your time

One morning last October, I opened an email from the CEO of our expense reporting software, Expensify. David Barrett has a tendency to send very long emails about upgrades to service, new features, and, occasionally, increases in licensing costs. I inwardly groan when I see the emails in my inbox, but I still skim them because I’m afraid a price increase is buried somewhere.

But I read his email on October 22 very carefully, then read it two more times because I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“I know you don’t want to hear this from me.”

That’s how Barrett’s email started and he was right. The rest of the message detailed why he had decided, along with his colleagues, to email millions of customers (even if they lived outside of the U.S.) to encourage people to vote for Joe Biden. 

The reason I don’t want to hear that from David Barrett has nothing to do with who he was endorsing. I don’t want to hear about politics from him because I don’t use Expensify for their political advice or analysis. Our organization uses it because it is an inexpensive, convenient, and reliable product. 

I was shocked that a business leader would risk alienating customers by making such a strong political statement (we’ve linked the full email below). The election wasn’t over, but I had to believe a significant number of people would cancel their Expensify subscription after reading Barrett’s words: “If you are a US citizen, anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy” (emphasis Barrett’s).

Taking a stand

Within a month, Barrett reported that, in fact, his email did have a significant impact, but it wasn’t the one I would’ve expected: Expensify was getting increased interest from people who wanted to work for the company, and they had gained some new customers. I have yet to see any reports of a decrease in revenue, and reports in November showed that October was Expensify’s highest revenue-earning month to date. But I’m sure Expensify lost customers, too.

Now, following the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, businesses are announcing that they won’t make future donations to politicians who voted against certifying the electoral college vote. In some cases, companies have asked for donations to be returned.

Is it a good idea for businesses to be involved in politics? 

The perks and perils of business and politics

There isn’t an easy or obvious answer to that question. If you ask Jack Dorsey of Twitter this week whether banning the president of the United States from your platform is a good business move, he might not be as enthusiastic about the effect of politics on his bottom line. Unlike Expensify, Twitter doesn’t have the luxury of being apolitical, because their action or inaction in this circumstance has political consequences.  

Our 5 links this week offer different perspectives on the role of business in politics and the consequences of mixing the two. You might have a strong opinion on this subject, but the chances are good that someone else has an equally strong opinion that differs from yours. Current events present a good opportunity to explore those differences civilly, and I hope you’ll do so! 

5 links worth your time

  1. Expensify CEO David Barrett has no regrets about Joe Biden email, New York Post – On October 22nd of last year, the CEO of Expensify, a software company that provides a platform for expense reporting, sent this email to all of his company’s approximately 10 million subscribers. Not only does the CEO not regret this decision, but he also believes it has helped his business and improved his recruitment.
  2. We Don’t Have to Live Like This, Discourse Magazine – Even if Expensify had positive results from taking a stand on the election, Daniel Rothschild of the Mercatus Center argues it’s still a bad idea to over-politicize everything. Mercatus uses Expensify, and Rothschild made sure to let their CEO know how he felt about the email he received. This is a longer piece, but well worth the read. 
  3. Can Business Help Reduce Polarization?, Civil Squared Podcast – We interviewed Bob Feldman about The Dialogue Project, a study that considered the role business can play in improving civil discourse and reducing polarization. With a distinguished career in corporate communications and marketing, Bob believes that businesses need to step up and ensure that the workplace welcomes diversity of opinion. In this episode, he talks about what he’s learned and how others can apply it. 
  4. ‘An Epiphany Moment’ for Corporate Political Donors May Have Arrived, The New York Times – Andrew Ross Sorkin’s New York Times’ newsletter “Dealbook” has been focusing on the role of business “in a moment like this.” One company the series highlighted was IBM because it, unlike most large companies in the United States, never donates to political candidates. Here, IBM’s CEO discusses that decision.
  5. Jack Dorsey statement on banning Donald Trump from Twitter, Twitter – Social media and technology companies face a particularly difficult challenge. With so much impact on public discourse, how do they balance their own business considerations with their influence on the political landscape. Twitter’s founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, describes the company’s reasoning, the implications for “the public conversation,” and the ways this action illustrate a failure on Twitter’s part.

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