Summer has arrived and it seems like the perfect time to remind both our children and our CEOs of an immutable law of physics as well as a long standing tenet of pool etiquette – that you cannot pee in only part of the pelvis. For kids, it just makes good sense and a much more enjoyable experience for everyone. For CEOs, especially as we enter another year where electoral politics will be front and center, it’s more of a fair warning that the rules have changed. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping no one will notice your absence until the storm passes makes no sense.
Any CEO who thinks he can still separate, isolate and insulate his business policies and practices from the sordid politics, culture wars and social media slander sewers that have engulfed us and drowned out all civil discourse is seriously mistaken. The concept that you’re just going to pay attention to your business and not get involved in these other issues is more than naive at this point. Noise, concerns, exposures and risks are unavoidable – just like peeing in the pool – and they are also increasingly linked to every part of your business. This includes customers, employees, products, safety and environmental concerns and, unfortunately, social and political issues as well.
You’re in the thick of it, whether you like it or not, and you’re going to have to do something because the success of your business depends on it. Even if your customers are unaware of some of these issues and controversies, you are not off the hook. Because there are many other parts to the conversation.
Just to be clear, those furious, crazed barbarians outside your walls aren’t the only ones storming the gates. In fact, just as much grief, anguish, and upheaval will likely come from some of your own inner co-workers as well, and those numbers seem to be increasing faster every day. Whether it’s due to increased employee unease, leading to more union organizing drives by disgruntled MBAs now working as baristas, or the pain of having to deal with angry, over-stressed customers who don’t have the slightest desire to be civil or understanding, the gloves are off.
At one point it made a lot of sense to suggest that – particularly in terms of customer conversations and confrontations – your employees leave their own politics and issues at home, even if in terms of masking that’s not not always possible.
Unfortunately, post-pandemic personal politics is still a big deal, with busy and volatile conversations between employees, so I recently suggested that in terms of allaying internal unrest, the best plan might be to simply point out clearly that some tense and sensitive subjects are simply no longer appropriate for the office if they really were.
But honestly, I’m afraid that boat has sailed. If you don’t step in and step in, you can be sure that someone else will fill the void and continue those conversations. And your efforts and actions will need to differentiate between the variable nature of discussions, which is primarily a matter – like navels – of innies and outies. Let your belly button guide you.
Innies relate to a company’s rules, regulations, procedures and policies – including editorial matters and content choices – that relate directly to the company and its operations. One such internal area is Netflix’s decision to continue to deliver creative content that is acceptable to some viewers and loathsome to others. Netflix’s bold direction toward employees is that the company will endorse a wide variety of content that’s guaranteed to offend everyone at some point. Oh, and if you don’t like it, you can leave.
Office hours and remote or hybrid work are also internal issues. Again, at least in Tesla’s case, Elon Musk’s position couldn’t be clearer: “Come back to the office 40 hours a week or go work somewhere else.” Ultimately, these are the direct concerns of your business and your employees and, for better or worse, they are entitled to a statement from management on the state of affairs and, ideally, on the why certain decisions are made.
Exits, on the other hand, are issues – especially cultural and political concerns – that have to do with the outside world. Make no mistake: these issues will eventually and directly impact your own life, family and livelihood, and that of your people. Notwithstanding this inevitable prospect, I still advise that the best, smartest course is discretion. Your team (and perhaps your customers) are always entitled to an explanation, but it’s perfectly appropriate to ignore the bullying and BS of a vocal, woke minority and simply take the position that the company is not going to not take a stand.
If you need clear evidence of the difficulty and danger of stepping out of your comfort zone and trying to navigate one of these culture wars, Disney’s continuing problems are a clear example. There were plenty of Disney customers and cast members on both sides of the gay rights issue and Disney’s first instinct was to try to stay out of the fray. When the CEO was humiliated quickly enough to change his mind, everything went awry. Sadly, it’s pretty clear that disgraced former President Donald Trump and shameless Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – aided and abetted by their thugs – will continue to harass corporate targets such as Disney in order to continue scamming sucker money from MAGA.
The situation only gets worse when the lines between inside and outside become even more blurred. Amazon ran into a similar problem when some employees objected to the company selling books they deemed trans-negative. When external concerns are drawn into the business environment and interfere with work operations, attitudes and interpersonal relationships, it becomes an endless Pandora’s box where no one, even with the best of intentions, can ever win.