Mixing business and politics

My invitation to what I presumed was a business luncheon, only to find out it was a political fundraiser, reinforced the view Dave and I share that politics has no place in the business world.

Mixing business and politics by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago I received a lunch invitation from a well-known local business person. It was formally delivered and directed me to come to the company executive dining room. I was curious about the nature of the invitation but happy to accept and find out at the lunch. On the day and at the appointed time I arrived for what I thought would be a small or perhaps even exclusive lunch. To my surprise about 20 people had arrived for the same luncheon. I knew many of them and enjoyed brief conversations before we got down to what was clearly a working lunch.

Deceptive invitation

Within minutes it was obvious what the agenda was – a political fundraiser with a variety of politicians in the room. Several of the politicians made their political speeches – thankfully short, sweet and to the point. Then one of the cohosts for the event took control and asked the assembled business people to speak about their interest in and ability to donate. He also indicated the order in which we would have the opportunity to speak – not that we could speak, but that we would be called on.

As soon as I realized what was happening I was on a slow burn. Not only had I been unaware of the agenda, it felt as if it had been deliberately withheld from me. Had I known the nature of the luncheon, I would not have attended. Dave and I have a firmly held view that there is no room for political leverage or favoritism in business. Further, we do not believe that businesses should make political donations or that their CEOs should espouse a public position on politics (of course, with some very limited exceptions).

Fair play

Simply stated, companies have to get along and work with the party that is in power. No favors can or should be expected simply because the party that a company supports forms the government. Companies should not win or lose business because of party affiliations or support.

Every business person knows that governments shape the regulatory and economic environment within which they operate. Eliminating bureaucracy and creating conditions for businesses to form and thrive is good for everyone, not just business people and not just the government. We all win when we have a healthy business sector that is globally oriented and competitive. The government serves us all, and elected officials and parties cannot be or be seen to be beholden to corporate contributors.

Access to government needs to be fully open to all companies, not just big donors. All companies should be considered for nonpaid consultative roles and positions on advisory panels and task forces. All companies need to have access to government opportunities to promote their products internationally on high-level trade junkets.

Focus on business

Political support and involvement need to be personal not business pursuits. CEOs and others in a position of influence in a corporation should not feel entitled to encourage staff to vote one way or another nor should they allow political fundraising within their walls. Gone are the days when the head of a business had extraordinary influence over the people working within a company. Today when thinking, feeling people are highly sought after, company leaders must stay away from the temptation of using his or her power and authority at work to try to influence staff in their voting and political donation choices.

Like many things, the ultimate behavior lies with the CEO and the board of the company. But behaviors can be shaped and supported by some measures such as eliminating the ability of companies to make political donations. Business is business and it does not have a broader mandate to reach out into the political arena.

The bottom line for me – business and politics should not mix.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.