How I felt when my CEO got political
Talking to my friends about my job was a whole different proposition before the 2016 United States presidential election. Back then I’d talk about the flexible PTO policy, the unlimited cold brew and daily lunch stipend. A trifecta of perks that would always elicit the same response: “I wish my company did that.”
This was over 500 days ago. The President of the United States still hadn’t accused his predecessor of wiretapping and I still hadn’t heard the word snowflake used as an insult. This was before my company’s CEO felt compelled to send out multiple company-wide emails in response to our current political climate.
I work here at Sprout Social. Like other tech companies, there are plenty of stereotypes: standing desks, organic snacks, too many millennials to count and yes—there is a hoverboard.
But unlike some other businesses in our industry, Sprout’s Founder and CEO, Justyn Howard, has continued to speak out against rhetoric and policies he believes are harmful to employees and their families.
A CEO’s voice has the power to change the dynamics of the companies they lead. But the platform doesn’t come without its own set of risks and challenges.
According to a Sprout survey, 59% of respondents said it’s important for CEOs to engage with consumers and followers on social and political issues on social media.
I grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago. As a kid, I would spend my Saturdays canvassing with my dad. We’d go door to door and hand out fliers for alderman or state’s attorney. The practice of voting in local and federal political races became part of my DNA.
An appreciation for democracy is something that’s carried on into my adult life. Last year I hosted an Election Night party. I decorated my apartment with a blend of star spangled banners and clearance aisle Halloween decorations–skull figurines and coffins. “Depending on how the night goes,” I joked.
On election night, when the pundits called Michigan, I knew it was over. The collective mood at my party turned somber. The results of the presidential election paralyzed me.
The next morning, Sprout’s then roughly 300 employees received an email from Justyn. I read the message on my train ride into work.
“My vote at the polls was foremost for acceptance,” he wrote. “None of us can carry that virtue and at the same time be unaccepting of opposing views.”
Justyn went on to say that his door was open for constructive dialogue and reiterate that we’re a team that supports each other. He made a point to explain that his sentiment wasn’t motivated by a business objective.
“I won’t try to squeeze a business narrative out of the events that we’re dealing with. That would be self-important and pointless.”
Since Sprout was founded seven years ago, its motto has been, “Open communication creates progress.” Reading Justyn’s message, I realized just how this core belief permeated from the top down and throughout the organization.
As I got off the train and headed into the office, I was comforted by the fact that I was walking into a place where leadership had given me permission to mourn.
Justyn’s thoughtfulness didn’t end when the polls closed. Eighty-one days later, we all received a second email. The subject line read, “Not us.” The message was in response to President Trump’s January 2017 travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations entering the U.S.
“We are a team of individual thinkers with different beliefs, backgrounds, perspectives and journeys,” Justyn said. “However, on the topic of human rights there is no gray area.”
1/ Things that can't be swept under the rug post election: Russian influence/cooperation, including mystery server, conflicts of interest
— Justyn Howard (@Justyn) November 13, 2016
He told us that he had made a donation on Sprout’s behalf to the ACLU and closed by offering support for employees or their family members who needed assistance as a result of the executive order.
For the first time in my career, I was proud not only of what my company did, but of what my company stood for.
More so than just comforting, I found Justyn’s statements to be brave. For any business, there are repercussions to being political. These repercussions are particularly high for B2B companies like Sprout. Our business’ success is dependent on the organizations who buy our products: Organizations that may or may not share Sprout’s values.
But Justyn understood that he had a responsibility to his team. When a CEO stays silent on social and political issues that impact marginalized employees, it sends a message that not everyone is welcomed. A message that would have been in direct conflict with Sprout’s mission.
Today when friends ask me about my job, I don’t mention the flexible PTO policy, the unlimited cold brew or the daily lunch stipend. I mention Justyn’s words after the election. I reference his donation to the ACLU. Anecdotes that elicit the even more powerful response: “Are you guys hiring?”
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