You Can’t Pee in Part of the Pool

Summer’s here and it seems like the ideal time to remind both our children and our CEOs of an immutable law of physics as well as a long-standing tenet of swimming pool etiquette — which is that you can’t pee in just part of the pool. For the kids, this simply makes good sense and a much more pleasant experience for all. For the CEOs, especially as we roll into another year when electoral politics will be front and center, it’s more by way of fair warning that the rules have changed. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping that no one will notice your absence until the storm passes makes no sense at all.

Any CEO who thinks he or she can still separate, isolate, and insulate their business policies and practices from the sordid politics, culture wars, and sewers of social media slander that have engulfed us and drowned out any civil discourse is seriously deluded. The concept that you’re just going to pay attention to your business and not get involved with these other issues is beyond naïve at this point. The noise, the concerns, the exposures, and the risks are inescapable – just like pee in the pool – and they’re bound up with every part of your company as well. That includes customers, employees, products, safety and environmental concerns and yes, sad to say, social and political issues as well.

You’re in the thick of it, like it or not, and you’re going to have to do something about it because the success of your company depends on it. Even if your customers and clients aren’t on your case about some of these questions and controversies, you’re not out of the woods. Because there are many other parties to the conversation.

Just to be crystal clear, those angry, crazy barbarians outside your walls aren’t the only ones storming the gates. In fact, just as much grief, angst and upset is likely to be coming from some of your own people inside as well, and those numbers seem to be growing more rapidly every day. Whether this is due to increased employee malaise, leading to more unionization drives by unhappy MBAs now working as baristas, or the sheer pain of having to deal with angry, over-stressed customers who haven’t the slightest inclination to be civil or understanding, the gloves are off.

At one point, it made a great deal of sense to propose that – especially in terms of conversations and confrontations with customers – your employees leave their own politics and issues at home, although in terms of matters like masking, it’s not always possible.

Unfortunately, post-pandemic, personal politics is still a big issue, with loaded and volatile employee-to-employee conversations, so I recently suggested that in terms of tamping down the internal turmoil, the best plan might be to make it clear that Certain tense topics and touchy subjects simply aren’t appropriate any longer for the office if they ever really were.

But honestly, I’m afraid that boat has sailed. If you don’t step up and step in, you can be sure that someone else will fill the vacuum and carry on these conversations. And your efforts and actions will need to differentiate between the varying nature of the discussions, which is mainly a matter – like navels – of innies and outies. Let your belly button be your guide.

Inies relate to a company’s rules, regulations, procedures and policies – including editorial matters and content choices – which directly relate to the business and its operations. Netflix’s decision to continue to offer creative content is acceptable to some viewers and hateful to others is one such internal area. Netflix’s bold direction to employees is that the company will underwrite a wide variety of content that is guaranteed to offend everyone at some point. Oh, and if you don’t like it, you can leave.

Office hours and remote or hybrid work are also internal matters. Here again, at least in the case of Tesla, Elon Musk’s position couldn’t be clearer: “Come back to the office 40 hours a week or go work somewhere else.” The bottom line is that these are direct concerns of your company and your employees and, for better or worse, they are entitled to a statement from management as to where things stand and ideally why certain decisions are being made.

Outies, on the other hand, are issues – especially cultural and political concerns – that have to do with the outside world. Don’t fool yourself: these matters will eventually and directly impact your own life, family, and livelihood and those of your people as well. Notwithstanding that inevitable prospect, I still advise that the better, smarter course is discretion. Your team (and maybe your customers) is still entitled to an explanation, but it’s appropriate to ignore the bullying and BS of a vocal and woke the minority and simply take the position that the company isn’t going to take a position.

If you need any obvious evidence of the difficulty and danger of stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying to straddle your way into any of these cultural wars, Disney’s continuing problems are a clear case in point. There were plenty of Disney customers and cast members on both sides of the gay rights issue and Disney’s first instinct was to try to stay out of the fray. When the CEO was quite quickly shamed into changing his mind, everything went sidesways. Sadly, it’s pretty clear that disgraced former president Donald Trump and shameless Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – aided and abetted by their thugs – will continue to harass corporate targets such as Disney in order to keep scamming money from MAGA suckers.

The situation only gets worse when the lines between inside and out get further blurred. Amazon had a similar issue arise when some employees objected to the company selling books that they deemed to be negative towards trans people. When external concerns get pulled into the business environment and interfere with operations, attitudes, and interpersonal relationships at work, it becomes an unending can of worms where no one, even with the best of intentions, can ever win.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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