Should HR Support CEO’s Who Take Hard Political Stances?

Dawn Burke Employee Relations, Employment Branding and Culture

Note > Other translations may include: ballsy, stupid, crazy, naive, smart, courageous, idiotic, or foolish enough…? 

October 23rd was a typical day at Casa Burke. My cat jumped on my head to wake me up. I drank my 1.7 cups of Community Coffee (Mardi Gras Blend with sugar-free peppermint mocha creamer). I watched my girl Gail King on CBS This Morning for a few. And, on cue, popped open my email pronto, you know – to ramp up my anxiety early in the morning.

I scrolled a bit, and an email appeared that made October 23rd a day to remember. I had received an email from David Barrett, CEO of Expensify. I use Expensify, so I thought it was a standard update. But, check this out, the email title was…drumroll…

Protect democracy, vote for Biden. 

Wait. What? I did a double-take, made sure I read that correctly, and in a nano-second, as fast as 3-year-old snatches a Pez dispenser in a grocery checkout line, I clicked it open. Here’s what was in the first paragraphs from David Barrett: 

“I know you don’t want to hear this from me. And I guarantee I don’t want to say it. But we are facing an unprecedented attack on the foundations of democracy itself. If you are a US citizen, anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy.

That’s right, I’m saying a vote for Trump, a vote for a third-party candidate, or simply not voting at all — they’re all the same, and they all mean: “I care more about my favorite issue than democracy. I believe Trump winning is more important than democracy. I am comfortable standing aside and allowing democracy to be methodically dismantled, in plain sight.”

If the polls are accurate, there’s a roughly 50% chance that you agree Trump needs to go. You know what to do: show up on November 3rd and vote for Biden. Or even better, don’t wait until then: vote today. Go to if you need help figuring out how.

The rest of this email is intended to address the concerns of those who disagree, and I’ll try to take the most likely questions in turn…”

I paused. Gulped my 1.8th cup of coffee. And literally said out loud: “ Shit.” Wow.

This email, also sent to Expensify’s 10 million other customers, was extensive. It shared explicit reasons why democracy is essential and why voting for Trump impacts Expensify’s business (and all companies in general). Also, it shared why he has the right to share these thoughts (the first amendment), why you have the right to disagree, and lots of other stuff. 

It wasn’t written in a cuckoo-crazy way. It was direct, it took a hard stance, and gave voting resources. Also, he gave people access to his email and Twitter to share their thoughts, disagreements, and the like. 

Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen anything like that from any business. I was in awe of the courage; it was refreshing. I loved how he shared his contact information. If you are gonna stir the customer pot, you need to give customers a way to respond. I liked the idea he was willing to lose customers in order to possibly gain others in line with the corporate culture. I also believe company transparency, accountability and integrity (all things he believed he was speaking to), are the cornerstones of successful companies.

However, as a leader over the last forever years, like Pavlov’s dog, reading this viscerally dredged up dread and anxiety for what may come next; next for him as a leader, next regarding what employees would think, and the next quarter’s business would go down the drain. I mean, did the employees even agree with this? Were the customers who would be lost, deserving of being lost?

See, 20 years ago, I was raised in the HR school of vocal conservatism. Say little publicly about hot-button issues, keep the peace, protect yourself (and employees). Over the years, I have changed my tune on this exponentially; I was never that good at not speaking my mind anyway. But, old norms die hard. And this was a public, hard, direct stance on a divisive topic that could have far-reaching consequences for every aspect of the business, including the “people” side.  

For as much hope, or company galvanization, or gratitude it would evoke in many, it could cause an equal amount of distrust, pain, frustration in others. This wasn’t an overt stance on violence, or a singular social justice issue, or a hard line on diversity. It was a broad stance, albeit courageous one, on a political. Totally new territory. I could see HR headaches written all over this > all in the middle of a pandemic. 

After researching this, the CEO did this primarily on his own, asking 20 Sr. Employees to vote on whether to send the email. 2/3rds of the 20 said – go for it. However, board members, including Equity partners, did not know about the email “pre-send.” 

Is this intended as a political opinion piece? Nope. I share this as a case study. As you contemplate this situation, you can switch out “vote for Biden” with “vote for Trump.”  

  • What would you do as an HR pro if this email dropped with (or without) your knowledge?
  • Is this an act of brilliance or foolishness?
  • Since, of course, you, Modern HR pro, have the ear of your CEO, how would you counsel them on this. 

Last but not least, could you galvanize behind the organization, regardless of your political stance or feelings of your leader?  

The HR Pro has become the Hero or Anti-Hero in the Corporate “Morality Play.” And since social justice, equality, and now straight-up-politics are significant components in modern customer and employee engagement, People leaders should be prepared to take on that role. In some cases, want to take on that role. People Leaders (CPO, CHRO, or Chief Wizard of Humans, or whatever is the moniker du jour), to be effective, HAVE to:

  •  Turn the mirror toward themselves and make hard decisions about their values, boundaries, health, and dedication towards the companies they work for. More importantly, the employees they represent, develop, counsel, and train. 
  • Decide, pre-emptively, based on the decisions you made in bullet point one, how you would handle navigating these waters. Not only to be the most influential leader but also so you can sleep at night. 

I don’t have enough information to give you the “what would I do” opinion. For instance, I do not know if the HR leader was one of the 20 Sr. Leaders who voted. I know my opinion would be based on several factors other than just political stance, although it would be really hard. For instance, if my team was blindsided with this email’s delivery, I may not ever trust Mr. Barrett again, even if I was 100% Biden. 

That said, this email does serve as a reminder that navigating social justice ideas, issues, scenarios and now, political discourse is a must for your job. The sooner you understand your own values, boundaries, and biases, the sooner you can do the critical, game-changing work of a modern HR leader. And if your values, boundaries, and biases are not in line with the organization, or the HR role in the morality play isn’t your cup-of-team, you have some other life decisions to make.