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Omaha Magazine

To Be or Not To Be Political? The Business Question For the Ages.

Mar 21, 2024 02:01PM ● By Steve Jordon
To Be or Not To Be Political? b2b feature b2b april may 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

This is a tricky political time for business.  A highly contentious presidential election is under way. Divisive social issues—from gun control to immigration to LGBTQ rights—are pending in the courts, Congress, and state legislatures.

News once found far inside the local newspaper inspires vitriol: interest rates, gasoline prices, inflation, unemployment, infrastructure projects—even summer food programs for children of low-income families.

“It’s tougher today to be in business and not potentially offend somebody,” said Dr. Anthony Hendrickson, business dean at Creighton University. “Social issues are becoming intertwined with business decisions and people’s political perspectives.”

Many business owners try to avoid politics since controversial issues can divide customers, vendors, shareholders, and prospective employees. From Warren Buffett’s international conglomerate to the shop on the corner, businesses approach politics with care.

“I think in general, issues have gotten more controversial,” said Jennifer Creager, senior vice president and lobbyist for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “We try to always be in the center as much as we can, and sometimes walking that tightrope has gotten a little trickier.”

One local business owner whose company avoids politics altogether didn’t even want to discuss the reasons publicly, declining an interview through a spokesperson.

Others make at least some of their views known.

Heartland Pride, the Omaha organization that sponsors events and dialogue focused on LGTBQ rights, hosts an online directory of supporters that lists Omaha businesses, including ConAgra Brands, Bank of the West, Cox Communications, First Data, Godfather’s Pizza, the Nebraska Furniture Mart, and Union Pacific.

“Businesses have always been involved in politics,” said Huchen Liu, University of Nebraska at Omaha assistant professor of political science. But beyond the usual issues of taxes and regulation, companies today also face highly visible social and moral issues.

For example, a few years ago many businesses publicly embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, only to face criticism now from conservatives for adopting a “liberal, woke agenda.” Many companies continue the same policies but “dial back” public stances to avoid backlash, Liu said.

Even the abortion issue, which he said might seem to have little direct impact on business operations, can involve employee health insurance coverage. Some companies are considering covering expenses for employees who might have to travel to another state for abortions.

“The company’s dragged into the abortion battle and becomes an unwitting participant in the culture war,” Liu said.

Consumers certainly impact the political stances of businesses, he continued. “Many people are caring a lot more about the kind of business they’re buying from rather than the quality and price of goods.”

One long-standing way for businesses to influence public policy—and the people elected to make public policy—is through Chambers of Commerce. By supporting Chamber lobbying, individual businesses can avoid potential backlash from taking public stances or endorsing candidates.

Businesses are cautious when an issue divides public opinion, said Creager. “When something becomes black-and-white like that, a lot of companies don’t like to be in the middle of that divisiveness. They may have employees on both sides. They may have customers on both sides. It’s complex.”

Some larger businesses have their own government relations people considering political issues, she continued. “But a lot of Chamber members stand behind the Chamber. They give to the Chamber’s Political Action Committee.”

The Chamber’s leaders decide to support candidates and take stands on issues they consider pro-business, including some that can be considered controversial. For example, the Omaha Chamber favors increased legal immigration, LGBTQ non-discrimination, and “diversity, equity and inclusion” efforts because such issues can affect employment.

“Are we a welcoming community?” Creager asked. “Are we a welcoming state? Are we recognizing everyone’s value?”

When Chamber leaders can’t reach consensus, the group remains neutral. For example, several years ago, the Chamber declined to take a position on a legislative proposal on how much transparency is required when hiring a University of Nebraska president.

“We wouldn’t get involved in an issue just to get involved,” Creager said. “It’s got to have some connection to business.”

While businesses can try to remain neutral, their owners’ individual views can spark criticism.

Warren Buffett has found his way into political controversy, even though the corporation he heads, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of Omaha, does not make political contributions or take public stands on issues. Buffett, who declined an interview for this article, noted in 2012 that most people don’t have political action committees to influence government. “If you have an ability to speak out and you see things that you think are wrong, I think you ought to talk about them,” he said.

In 2003 the abortion controversy prompted Buffett to end a unique program that let Berkshire shareholders designate the corporation’s donations to charitable groups. Between 1981 and 2002, shareholders directed $197 million to charities they favored, most frequently churches.

But some money went to nonprofit pro-life and pro-choice groups. Berkshire received objections about the pro-choice donations, and some organizations boycotted 22 Berkshire subsidiaries.

“That did not concern us,” Buffett wrote in a Berkshire annual report. But when boycotts struck some independent franchise holders of Berkshire-owned Pampered Chef, he wrote, “People who trusted us—but who were neither employees of ours nor had a voice in Berkshire decision-making—suffered serious losses of income. Advantages of the donation program,” he continued, “paled when they were measured against damage done to loyal associates who had with great personal effort built businesses of their own.”

Buffett has been a longtime supporter of women’s causes, a view shared by his late wife, Susan, and other family members. Buffett-funded charities supported research into reproductive health, including abortion-related medications. Abortion protestors showed up outside Berkshire’s annual shareholders meeting in Omaha for many years.

In 2011, Buffett said publicly that ultra-rich people, like himself, shouldn’t pay lower tax rates than middle-class Americans. President Barack Obama—whom Buffett endorsed as a candidate—cited what he called the “Buffett Rule” and proposed a minimum income tax on those earning more than $1 million a year. It didn’t become law, and some shareholders complained that Buffett’s comments were outside his CEO duties. But others praised his public comments, including one shareholder who called him “kind of a beacon of light among billionaires.”

In 2016 Buffett endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president and criticized her opponent, Republican Donald Trump, for what Buffett said were Trump’s business failings.

Regardless of Buffett’s politics, Berkshire’s Class A share price history is clear: $82,800 in 2003, $114,755 in 2011, $248,000 in 2016, and $542,600 at the end of 2023.

The business/politics situation continues to garner national attention, and the interest in politics and social issues is a business focus, Creighton Business Dean Hendrickson said.

Not long ago, new college graduates were pleased just to get jobs that could support themselves and their families, he said. “But the labor market has been so tight that students can pick and choose a lot more now.

“Students today tend to be drawn toward businesses that want to make a positive impact on the world, not just turn a profit and be financially sound. They want to do something that’s going to have a positive effect on society and the world. You will see students who may not be interested in working for a company that doesn’t embrace the political positions they may have.”

A student who strongly supports climate issues may turn down a job with a fossil fuel business, Hendrickson said, but such decisions are not always simple.

“What happens if they go to work for a public accounting firm and there’s a client in the oil and gas industry? Do they not want to do the audit or tax work?”

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This article originally appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe. 
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