It’s not news that Republicans and Democrats generally view
the U.S.’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic quite differently, but it didn’t
start out that way. In the early days of
the crisis, many thought it would bring unity (we’re all human and in this together). As we know now, the pandemic quickly divided
the U.S. population along political affiliations. A
recent CBS poll highlighted just how deep that polarization has become when
they published startling differences in perception of deaths due to coronavirus,
among other statistics.
In the poll published on August 23, they asked 2,226 registered
voters if the number of U.S. deaths from coronavirus has been
“acceptable.” Nearly all (90%) of
Democrats said it was not acceptable, vs. 10% who said it was. Republican responses were quite
different: 57% said the number was
acceptable, vs. 43% who said it wasn’t. Another
surprising dichotomy showed 73% of Republicans thought the U.S.’ dealing with
the coronavirus was “going well” vs. just 38% of all voters.
The same poll, which has a margin of error of 2.4%, shows
stark differences in perception on other areas organizations are wrestling
with. For instance, 81% of Republicans
responded that the recent attention to discrimination was “too much” vs. just
12% of Democrats. More than half of
Democrats thought more attention was needed, vs. just 6% of Republicans. Like all polls, these data points represent a
single point in time and require further analysis to derive a clear
understanding of their true meaning.
However, the CBS poll and several others showcase the
dilemma facing most organizations today as they respond to the pandemic, social
unrest, and other issues of the day—the reaction is likely to be quite
different in the workforce depending on individual political affiliation.
Considering these issues and how they affect the upcoming
election, we were curious if CEOs are taking a political stance, and if the
looming election is affecting workforce productivity and overall culture.
Unsurprisingly, our recent survey of 300 professionals
reported that few CEOs have revealed their preferences. Only 4% of respondents
said their CEO has publicly endorsed a candidate, and a mere 9% said their CEO has
issued a corporate statement on political issues. The majority (53%) reported
that their CEO “tries to be apolitical” and has taken no stance.
While conventional wisdom tells us that a strong and clearly
articulated purpose and set of principles that communicates clearly where a
company stands is what job seekers and consumers want today, our recent poll
would suggest that most companies and their leaders are still unwilling to
share their views publicly.
Not all companies feel this way, however. Patagonia—always a
challenging company to compare against because its culture is so unique—has done
it a little differently.
Ahead of the 2018 midterm election, Patagonia became one of
the first consumer brands ever to make the endorsement of a specific candidate
part of its brand marketing. In support of their mission that “Patagonia is in
business to save our home planet,” the company endorsed two candidates,
Representative Jacky Rosen in Nevada, and Senator Jon Tester in Montana, both
Democrats, for their stances on protecting public lands. They promoted the
candidates on the website, across social channels, and in customer emails. Both
won their elections, and Patagonia’s support was called the determining factor
That’s unlikely to be matched in the short term by most
screens new hire candidates for and primarily attracts outdoor enthusiasts who
support environmental causes. Their customers generally reflect their
workforce, and as a result the company’s employer brand and consumer brand are
about as aligned as you’ll ever find.
For many other companies, the workforce (and the customer
base) often possess a wide variety of interests, beliefs and political
leanings, and as a result the organization is more apt to take a middle road
when it comes to supporting political issues or candidates.
This is beginning to change. Just in the last couple of
years we’ve seen several iconic brands including Nike, Levi’s, Gucci, Airbnb,
Ben & Jerry’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and others take public stances on a
variety of social issues. “Brand political activism” is a trend, primarily
because consumers are demanding it. Over 60% of consumers want companies to
stand up for the issues they are passionate about and another 66% think
transparency is one of a brand’s most attractive qualities.
But in today’s polarized world and “cancel culture,” that
step is a giant leap for most—the risks can appear to outweigh the rewards. Recently
President Trump tweeted, “Don’t buy GOODYEAR TIRES – They announced a BAN ON
MAGA HATS. Get better tires for far less!” in response to leaked photo of an
internal PowerPoint slide. Goodyear denied that they were targeting MAGA hats,
and later released a public statement which said the company asks its
associates to “refrain from workplace expressions in support of political
campaigning for any candidate or political party, as well as similar forms of
advocacy that fall outside the scope of racial justice and equity issues.”
This slippery slope so far seems to be traversed just fine
internally. Our same poll found that typical political debates among
co-workers, even in a virtual work environment, are not having much effect, and
frankly just aren’t happening. Almost 60% reported that there are no debates happening, while a mere 4% said that the
debates that are happening are disruptive to the culture (17% said they are “no
big deal”). Another 12% said the company—like Goodyear—has a specific policy
banning political debates.
It won’t be surprising to see attitudes and rhetoric heat up
as we approach the November elections.
But for now, it appears leaders and employees are staying away from public
stances. Yet, the attitudes underneath are as polarizing as we’ve seen, and
corporations that are rolling out return-to-office plans, responses to social
injustice and other issues need to be cognizant of the drastically different
points of view of employees – nobody seems to see these issues the same.
If you are struggling with all of this, take solace in the fact
that today is a more complex time than most of us have ever seen.
Post-election, post-pandemic, perhaps attitudes will change. As one respondent
“It is hard to tell what is the election and what is the
pandemic. Under normal circumstances the election impacts everyone’s business
decisions. There is always a slow down on spend until the election, and then an
uptick after the new year. I do not expect that to happen, this is much more
complicated. We have a lot of remote workers (under normal circumstances) Most
don’t mention politics, but I hear frequently—’cannot wait until November’.”