Politics and business can be a tricky mix for small business people and solopreneurs. If the overly heated political season of 2016 has made anything clear it’s that we all need to think carefully about how to react if differing political views enter the picture when dealing with clients/customers. And it’s best to do this thinking in advance before situations arise that might require you have to make a snap decision on how to respond on the spot.
Years ago I had a long-term client whose political views were markedly different from mine. He was quite active politically, both as a campaign donor and in trying to influence politicians about issues he cared about. This serial entrepreneur loved to bring up issues on which he knew we would disagree. Fortunately, he did this in a good-natured way, and our discussions were vigorous but never heated. It also helped that the issues he wished to discuss were confined to economic and business topics, such as taxes or business regulation. I was never even sure what his viewpoints were on the more volatile area of social issues, where things can get quite contentious if you’re on opposing sides.
Of course, this was in the good old 1990s, when the political divide was not quite as great or as ugly as it is today. It makes me downright nostalgic to think about those good old days!
Only once did this client’s political views actually enter into our work together and present me with a quandary. He was concerned about some proposed regulations in one of the industries he did business in and wanted me to write a letter that he could send to his clients asking them to join him in lobbying legislators on this matter. Alas, my views on the matter at hand were the opposite of his. So when he asked me to write this letter, I inwardly cringed. Outwardly, I took notes on what he wanted to say in this letter and prayed he was not going to ask me my opinion. Refusing the assignment was a possibility, but was bound to have consequences, none of which were likely to be pleasing. By saying no I might be putting a very lucrative client relationship in jeopardy.
In thinking it over, I decided to take the assignment. It occurred to me that it was possible that, given his greater knowledge of his industry, it may have been that his opinion was right and mine was wrong. Also, perhaps most importantly, the issue involved was not something that was going to harm anyone if my client’s viewpoint won out. Finally, it was going to be his name on the letter, not mine. He wasn’t asking me to endorse his viewpoint; he was only asking me to help him express his viewpoint.
Were there topics this client could have asked me to write about for him that I would have declined to do so? Yes. One of his businesses involves the health insurance market and I’m sure he opposes the Affordable Care Act (ACA). If we were still working together, at some point over the past few years he could well have asked me to write something that was anti-ACA. As someone who believes access to medical care is an important human right, I could not participate in even a minor way in putting the ACA in danger. The same would hold true if a client asked me to write something against a woman’s right to choose as well as numerous civil rights issues. Writing something that denied climate change would also be off the table for me.
Speaking of laws
The other possibility that can arise for a small business owner when it comes to political matters is being faced with new laws that go against your beliefs. Here in North Carolina, many businesses of all sizes consider the so-called bathroom law passed by our legislature last spring to be abhorrent. Small and large businesses spoke out on this issue and continue to do so in support of their own beliefs and in support of their employees and customers in the LGBT community. Small business owners who made their opposition to this law loud and clear ran the risk of offending customers who favored the law. This possibility is something you have to consider whenever you decide how vocal and how active to be on such hot topics. Just today, a restaurant owner in Raleigh wrote an op/ed supporting a call by the NAACP for a boycott of NC while this law is in place – that takes guts!
From the other side of this divide, small businesses across the country have found themselves making news by choosing to ignore laws that go against their beliefs. Marriage equality has been a hard pill for some small business owners to swallow and some have chosen to ignore laws that require them to serve gay couples just as they would heterosexual couples. This has resulted in lawsuits and headlines. Again, these are decisions you need to think through before hand rather than make on the spur of the moment.
Thankfully, not every business is like mine, where as a ghostwriter, I may be asked to directly participate in supporting something I don’t believe in by writing a mailing, an advertorial, or other promotional materials. But from time to time most of us are faced with having to decide if and how to respond to clients or customers who are aggressive with their political beliefs. What making such choices requires is that you know where you need to draw the line in the sand. Such decisions have to be based on your core values. Here’s a post I wrote several years ago about the importance of defining your core values as you move forward with your business. If you take time now to think through what really matters to you in conducting your business, doing business across a political divide is sure to be easier in what are sure to be challenging times for some of us in 2017 and beyond.