In recent years, companies once perceived to be politically agnostic have been brazen about offering opinions on a variety of issues. It’s often the case that these views are not related to their core business.
In the past decade, Target issued statements in favor of gender-neutral bathrooms. Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, has made public statements against same-sex marriage. Plus, a host of CEOs have tweeted and issued press releases opining on hot-button issues from healthcare to gun control.
Consumers are often quick to voice their support or displeasure for these stances. But do these positions also affect employees’ motivation to do their jobs?
Yes and no, according to new, first-of-its-kind research by management professor Vanessa Burbano.
Burbano finds that if you disagree with political statements made by the company you work for, it’s likely to have a demotivating effect on your job performance. If, however, you find yourself in alignment with your firm’s views, your motivation will not increase.
“If you learn that your employer shares the same beliefs that you do, it does not surprise you in the same way as it does if they disagree with you,” says Burbano. “When individuals find out information that is negative and surprising, they react more forcefully than they would if it was positive and unsurprising.”
In the study, Burbano used Upwork, a freelance-jobs website, to hire workers to translate documents from different languages into English. Those workers were then given surveys to determine their views on several socio-political issues. The surveys revealed the debate on gender-neutral bathrooms to be the most polarizing issue, yet the range of opinions were evenly distributed.
Next, those same workers were hired by a different company and randomly assigned messages that their employer was either for or against gender-neutral bathrooms. Other workers received no political communications.
“By setting up research like this, I’m able to tell a causal story,” Burbano says. “It’s essentially like A/B testing in medical trials, except I’m using control and treatment groups to test the effects of political stances.”
Burbano then tracked quality of the translations completed and calculated the amount of extra work the employees completed by tracking the number of “optional” words the workers translated in light of their opinion of the company’s position on gender-neutral bathrooms.
The research demonstrated that when employees share a company’s opinion on an issue, they were not motivated to accomplish more on the job; they completed a statistically equivalent amount of extra work and quality of work than if the company did not share its opinion on an issue.
When the company and workers are on opposite sides of an issue, there is a clear demotivating effect, both in terms of quality of work completed and amount of extra work completed. In that circumstance, only an average of 103 extra words were translated, compared to an average of 272 words translated when the company took no stance on the issue.
Burbano started to notice a shift in the political activism of certain corporations in 2017 soon after the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“There’s been an increasing prevalence of companies taking stances on socio-political issues that don’t fall under the purview of what corporations have traditionally had a say on,” Burbano notes.
Burbano says that it will be important to track the evolution of firms’ involvement in politics in the coming years, especially in how particular stances affect employees. It is also a departure from what most understand as corporate social responsibility(CSR), which typically involves participation in charitable organizations.
“This is different than traditional CSR because there isn’t a clear sense of what ‘doing good’ is,” she says. “Some individuals will agree and others will not.”
About the researcher
Vanessa Burbano is the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Management in the strategy area at Columbia Business School. She was named to