Early voting has already begun and, if your state is like mine, you’re being inundated with campaign ads and “robo calls.” Yes, it’s election season again and, for ethics and compliance officers, this time of the year often comes with a long list of potential risks and challenges.
Not too long ago, I remember reading an article that detailed the efforts campaign staffers are making to “bag trophy supporters”—influential executives who will fundraise and publicly work on a candidate’s behalf. To me, the article raised one red compliance flag after another, and got me thinking about specific steps that ought to be taken, especially during election season, to head off embarrassing incidents—or worse.
1. Review your code of conduct and policies to make sure they’re clear and up-to-date about political contributions, political activity and campaign financing. These issues are complex and can vary from state to state. Emailing employees, especially senior managers, reminding them of the rules and encouraging them to ask questions if they’re in doubt is probably a good idea. This is especially important if you’re a government contractor or if your company or industry has a political action committee (PAC).
2. Be clear about limits on using company resources for political activities. Most employees have no problem making the easy calls: it’s not okay for an employee to make copies of campaign flyers and emails to clients or customers urging them to support a candidate. But what about some of the tougher calls? For example, do you allow use of company facilities for rallies? Do you make exceptions if the rally focuses on particular issues—like healthcare, energy or defense—that are directly related to your business?
3. Reinforce role-specific policies—particularly with senior executives. Do you make exceptions to your code of conduct or policies if your CEO or a senior executive is a big supporter of a particular political candidate or cause? What if a senior executive hosts a fund raiser and encourages peers and subordinates to attend? Does it matter if the event is off site and after hours? What constitutes inappropriate pressure? What happens to those who decline? How would you respond to a complaint from an employee who feels he is being retaliated against by his boss ever since they discussed their political preferences? And is there anything you can or should do if your CEO or a senior executive chooses to publicly support a controversial candidate?
The issues can be most difficult when a senior executive is an enthusiastic supporter. In the worst cases they see their choice as the only reasonable one and can’t understand how anyone could disagree. If asked, they often won’t see their advocacy as unacceptable pressure on subordinates or as creating tensions in the workplace. Instead they’ll defend it as their right—and even their public obligation.
4. Be prepared to make the tough calls. No matter how strong your code of conduct or policies are, there will be challenges and unexpected situations that may require you to take an unpopular stand. In those cases, your corporate culture and your code of conduct and policies should help guide your decisions.
For example, most companies prohibit employees (without clearance) from speaking on behalf of the company and publicly endorsing a candidate. But what do you do if a sales associate insists it’s her right to wear a candidates’ button when visiting customers? In this case, clarifying for her that wearing the button while representing the company is a violation of your policies may be an unpopular stance, but it is one that must be taken.
If you’re faced with tough challenges related to your political policies, remember there is good news: it will all be over soon—at least until the next election season.