The Fallacy of the Politics-Free Office
Companies like Coinbase say employees should leave politics at home. Here’s why that’s impossible.
Co-authored with Liz Fosslien
“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” declared economist Milton Freidman in a 1970 essay for the New York Times. Decades later, look where Friedman’s advice has left us: Social media businesses have accelerated the reach and rise of extremist groups, our collective mental health is on a steep decline, and, for the first time, today’s earners will likely be worse off than their parents. As Ford CEO Jim Hackett astutely pointed out, Friedman’s philosophy has “fomented the unsustainable inequalities that plague America today.”
But many corporate leaders still cling to Friedman’s harmful belief. The contentious political climate has even spurred some companies to publicly clamp down on any related discussion. As they see it, talking politics — or simply acknowledging what’s happening beyond the boundaries of the office — distracts people from their work, causes unnecessary internal friction, and, of course, hurts the organization’s ability to increase its profits. “We don’t engage [in broader societal issues] when issues are unrelated to our core mission because we believe impact only comes with focus,” wrote Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, in a recent controversial blog post. Doing so, he said, has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction and by creating internal division.” Following the post’s publication, Armstrong gave employees a week to decide whether they agreed with him and wanted to stay on at the company or take a severance package to leave.
Drawing a hard line between the personal and the professional has always been difficult. Given recent shifts in how and where we work, it is now near-impossible. When professor Robert Kelly’s children popped into his video interview with the BBC in 2017, they foreshadowed the reality that many of us are facing this year.
For the larger part of the year, almost half of U.S. employees have been working from home, eroding what little remained of the porous barrier between our professional and personal lives. With unemployment at an all-time high…