Political Neutrality: Smart or Dangerous?

By Cindy M. Huss posted 10-16-2017 10:28


Businesses generally serve a diverse group of customers that draw from all sides of political and social issues. Past wisdom dictated staying out of controversial issues to avoid offending customers. But in the past few years, the voice of business has become a visible and integral part of the national social and political dialogue.

A Forbes contributor has questioned whether this means that executives feel advocacy is more important than profits or whether they are being savvy. The question and answer is reflected in responses to an online poll regarding Starbucks. One person said, “Starbucks, and all businesses for that matter, should not be involved in politics. They exist to make money, and should stick to doing so.” But another wrote that a “failure to get involved in political issues cannot escape being a political act in itself, effectively supporting the status quo.”

A commentator on PBS NewsHour concluded that consumers today form relationships with companies based not only on the quality of their products but also on a set of expectations on how the companies should comport themselves: “[M]ost people still find failures of sincerity more troubling than differences of opinion. As long as a company is not being deceptive by obfuscating its beliefs, consumers can be surprisingly tolerant of a company that holds an opposing view.”

Major law firms are also grappling with whether to refrain from taking public positions or to speak out. Traditionally law firms have sought to recognize the diverse opinions of firm members and clients by being apolitical and not taking formal positions on matters of broad public interest. Should law firms change this practice in light of the changes occurring in the corporate world? There probably is no right answer. Has your firm discussed whether political neutrality is smart or dangerous for your practice?