Hung Lee, Recruiting Brainfood. Deals with politics in the workplace.A-Players - The top startups' recipes to build teams of top performers
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- 18 May 2022
Having Hung on my podcast was a dream come true. I'm a personal big fan of all his content, from Recruiting Brainfood to This Week in Recruiting. For our discussion together, we tried to address a topic that we felt was not enough covered in the HR world, almost a taboo: How to deal with politics at work.
Should you take a stance as a company? Should you ban all discussions related to politics or social issues? We see that there is no easy solution - but we can take some inspiration from what companies have already tried: Coinbase, Gitlab etc.
In the world of recruiting. Some people have seen it all. They build recruiting teams from the ground up, hired hundreds of people in the best companies in the world. People have their expertise year after year. I'm Robin Choi and I'm on a mission to collect their learnings.
These are their stories. Hi, everyone. Today we're having Hungry on APLayers. If you're listening to the podcast, you probably know Hungary already. It's the great writer of the newsletter Recruiting Brain Food, which is issue 295. So that will be for about six years that you started writing, recording Brain Food. Is that correct?
You've got great maths, Robin. It takes me a long time to work that out also. But yes, it's about six years doing it now.
And also launched a new newsletter recently on LinkedIn called this Week In Recruiting, which has 19,970 subscribers today. So I'd expect when people listen to that episode to be above 20,000, so we can celebrate before, but feel free to subscribe as well. So I'm very happy to have you hung today. So you can tell us a bit more about Recruiting Brain Food about this weekend recruiting, about your own background, and also about that very specific topic that we picked for today, which is a bit unusual for people listening to us and for recruiters and for anyone, really. And that's why we picked that topic. So I'll send it out to you and you can tell us more about your background and the topic for today.
Yeah, sure. So quick, 60 seconds on me. Basically, I am a recruiter. I've been in recruiting for 20 odd years now. So classic journey agency recruiter. First ten years, then moving in house and working with a lot of start ups, hiring software people generally doing really early stage scaling up. Then I launched a recruiting technology startup myself called Workshop. Io. So this is a matching product that was trying to connect software engineers directly with employers. And it was through sort of trying to figure out how to speak to customers where sort of the newsletter started to emerge. So I wanted to try and reach out to people in a way that was non intrusive and the way in which I could do that was basically doing a double opt in newsletter. So Recruiting Brain Food was born really as a side project from Worksheet. But over the first 18 months or so, but certainly by two years in, it was obviously the main thing that the market wanted me to do. So I focused on it full time and it's the main thing going forward now.
Got it. And so Recruiting Brain Food. And this weekend recruiting will put the links in description and you should subscribe now. And you mostly cover Recording. I'm very curious how you get all those articles every week and how you get fresh ideas every week. So that's very impressive. Yet today we decided not to talk so much about Rocketing but about a topic where it's actually very difficult to get any guidance and any content.
That's right. I mean, it's about politics in the workplace. How do you manage it? How do you deal with it? And I guess it's really topical because obviously over the last week or so, the main thing on the news has been Elon Musk potentially buying over. I think he's definitely bought Twitter, or at least he's in process of closing it. And that's caused all kinds of issues. Given that Musk is coming from this so called free speech absolutist position, which does clash with a lot of the things that we think HR and businesses should do, which is to create safe spaces for people to thrive. However, it's very clear that political polarization is a characteristic of modern society. I don't think we can expect this polarization to go away. And so we have to kind of look at it from a managerial perspective. What do we do when we encounter situations in businesses where different colleagues might have very different political views? How do we adjudicate between those? How do we manage that situation? And as you say, Robin, there's like zero guidance on how to do that. As far as I can see, no one knows how to do this.
So I thought that this would be a great topic just to shoot the breeze and throw around a few ideas. Right.
And so when we talked about that, obviously it's a very tricky topic as well. So that's probably one of the reasons why there are some few content about this. Yet some companies have taken stances's and so they can give us a bit of understanding of the different options that we have. And we talked about a few. So can you tell us more about the different options that companies have today from completely ignoring that discussion and saying that it's not allowed at work to maybe embracing it. So what are the different options that you've seen?
Well, I've seen exactly those two binaries. Really the majority of businesses out there, I guess there's a third one which is to completely ignore it.
It will be 90%.
Yeah, I think 90% basically ignore it and hope it goes away. And maybe it does. I mean, perhaps these issues might emerge most prominently in certain types of company. Perhaps it is noticeable that the businesses that have staked clear positions on this tend to be technology led type of companies that typically are building these globalized products and so forth. Maybe this issue is far less of a concern if you're kind of bricks and mortar type of business with a couple of hundred staff in a regional place somewhere. However, the positions I see is, aside from the ignoring it, hope it goes away. Number one is to embrace it and say, you know what, as a company, you can't afford to have a neutral position on this. In fact, neutrality is actually supporting the status quo. So you need to have advocacy into your company policy, so to speak. And the advocacy is in a certain direction. Right. So it's all about social progressivism. It's about supporting human rights, supporting pay, equality, all kinds of basically a stated mission to remove inequity in your company and through that mechanism in the wider society as a whole.
Now, I would say that type of position is probably the majoritarian view for most of the companies we're talking about. And then there are a few outliers that would say, actually, we don't think this is what a company should be doing. And the company actually has an independent mission that is different from social advocacy, which is stick to that mission. And in fact, if you do have these opinions, you're welcome to voice them, but not on company channels and not on company time. And I guess most famously, you can look at companies like Base Camp and Coinbase, I think, as the most prominent examples of businesses that have taken that public position.
So that position would be you are loads you have your own position, but you can talk about it at work, is that right?
That's correct. I think just reading Coinbase's position on it, they're saying, you know what, fundamentally, we might agree with some of these policies, but we can't allow it to be disruptive to the mission of work. And the mission of work is different, or at least it's decoupled from some of these issues. And that's the focus. So the argument against advocacy is to say not that we disagree with the positions that are being advocated for, but that is not the purpose of the business that we're talking about. And the focus of the business has to be what the core mission of that business should be the focus for everyone in it.
I'm actually looking at a Forbes article on this. So they say can't base one low discussion of politics and social causes at work. And that's also what comes out in your description. So there is politics where mostly they all be tense and maybe a 50% split between pros and cons and social causes. I don't really see backlash against social causes. So there is no real risk for a company to embrace social causes. Right. But Coinbase banned both politics and social causes.
Yeah, I think mainly because there's some fuzziness as to what is a social what is a political cause. Right. I mean, a lot of people, for instance, out there would consider doing something about climate change to be a political issue. So we basically disagree on where that boundary is. And again, that's part of our problem is that we are not discussing often the same things in the same categories. And in fact, maybe the real power play is actually how we categorize these issues. And that is the point of debate. Like, is it, for instance, a personal value, or is it actually a moral obligation. You know, these things go into you know, you can see why certain managers would see this is really above their pay grade and would have difficulty dealing with it. So I'm sympathetic broadly with the Coinbase position, because as a business owner or as an ex business owner, should I say I can anticipate these problems and this is almost like a problem and mitigation approach, which as a CEO is something you have an obligation to do. A lot of the people that are, I would say, most prominently on the social advocacy camp may not themselves be business owners, but in fact be employees of those businesses and therefore have a different sort of range of things to care about.
I think most business owners, most founders, most CEOs, they may passionately care about these things, but they have a responsibility for the health of the business that's over and beyond some of these values.
And there's a lot of different topics that fall into politics. There is obviously pure politics. So which candidate you support? There are racial causes, social causes also to some extent international politics, as well as we've seen with Russia and Ukraine recently. Should we treat all those subjects differently and have some companies try to do so? Like say, okay, you cannot talk about politics, but you can talk about social causes or you can talk about that. You can talk about the war in Ukraine, but you can talk about this or that. It seems difficult to enforce.
Though it's difficult to enforce, and maybe the positioning needs to be thought carefully. So in other words, rather than say about things that you can talk about or you can't talk about so policing, what you can't talk about, what you rather should do is say, look, this is a work channel, and we need to keep it focused on work stuff. And if people do want to talk about this politics, we're not banning that from the lunch can team. We're not banning that. When you're playing or having a breakout, that's totally cool. But on work specific channels, work specific places where people are trying to focus, let's say, on product development, you can't be injecting conversations that disrupt that. So I think that's probably the way in which to do it. If you are off the camp to say no politics at the office.
What'S surprising as well? So I was curious to see how can base reacted to the war between Russia and Ukraine. I see that can be banned Russian addresses and reported them to the US governments. So they actually took a political stance, but that was driven by Brian Armstrong, the CEO himself.
On that note, Robin, that's actually an additional complication. Right. Like how universal is your position and is it dynamic and is it changeable, and if it is changeable, is it consistent and is that a problem? If it is inconsistent? There's been a lot of issues. Obviously, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been on people's minds over the last two months, a terrible situation that's there overwhelmingly the people that I've interacted with, their positions are perfectly clear and happy to adopt these positions. But we have to say that our attitude is inconsistent overall. This is not the first time a country has been invaded or attacked by another business, by another country, should I say. But we don't apply the same sort of responses that we've seen in this instance. I think just earlier this week, didn't Israel sort of bomb Damascus, for instance? I believe this happened. There was zero response on this. And people might legitimately ask the question, okay, how do we decide which circumstance we respond to? And isn't that sort of political in some way? It's extremely difficult. I don't think there's a way in which we can have a Universalist approach.
I think whatever approach we have will be deeply, deeply flawed, however well meaning it will be. And it may be one of those managerial issues that is just truly unsolvable and perhaps dodging. It is the best way.
And have you seen companies trying to completely avoid seeing stance as Coinbase, like, completely avoid political discussions at work? Have you seen companies where it backfired? Well, eventually they ended up having people living because of this, having major discontent in the company.
I would imagine that the I can't think of any immediate example right away, but we've obviously seen people leave businesses for political differences or lack of satisfaction with a business response. I mean, we've seen this over the COVID period. We even saw this even before COLVID. When Trump first got elected in 2016, I remember very famously there was the Silicon Valley CEO that fired an email to his entire business and said, look, anybody voted for this guy, please leave. And he was based on for that. But there's an example of a CEO taking a political position, but it raises an ethical question. It's like, okay, let's say we are in a democracy and everyone can vote for whoever they seem fit. That person has deemed deemed fit stands for political office, whatever the structure may be. And it's not a crime to vote for that person. And is it right that you were then sort of marginalized by your CEO or by your business for making that vote? So it's difficult, man. I don't say I've got the answer to this, but it's hard to know how to play it.
That's a good example. Do you remember the company that dumped their employees because they voted for Donald Trump? Do you remember?
I don't remember the name, but I think if you went on the hacker news and you did a search for it, you'll very quickly find it. That CEO, though, was heavily criticized for that move, even though most of the critics would probably have empathy for his position.
So what's the solution for people listening to us and what practical advice can you give to them? Should we try and tell them to ignore the problem altogether or take that kind of decision not to talk about it? Should we tell them to maybe, I don't know.
A memo and separate the different topics and say, this is not something that we can talk about at work, or this is something that we can talk about at work. Have you seen some recipes that people can actually use and say, okay, let's not think about it. I'll just follow conveys or I'll just follow the leader and I'll do exactly the same as them. Do you have anything to recommend?
Yeah. I mean, I don't want to make recommendations, but I can kind of present things that you can do which might be slightly better than not doing anything. I think not doing anything is going to lead to a problem down the road. You obviously want to mitigate some of these issues. So I think a transparent declaration of your position would be useful, because that way when people join the business, they will know straight away how you position with regards to politics might be. And if you feel that a business is not sufficiently committed to certain political values or certain social values, then you can obviously decide not to join that company. And in fact, you can look at businesses that are more explicitly committed to these social values. So I think transparency up front, no matter what it is that your position is, I think would be very, very useful because then certain candidates can basically self select them in or out based on what it is. I think that's the first thing I would recommend identify what the position is. This has to come from the CEO. I think there's no way HR or Ta can invent this side sort of way and then rule out you've got to speak to the CEO and say, look, what's your position on this?
Because at some point maybe we have this issue and then publicize it and get it out there, having, of course, first come to an internal process where you debate it internally with your existing business and get their opinion of all the members of staff how it feels. This, I think, could trigger some attrition. I think Coinbase, in fact, offered to pay a very generous severance to people who were satisfied with the position. I believe a large percentage of people, large percentage. I believe it was over 10% took the offer. But reading from Brian Armstrong's kind of update on this, twelve months later, he was very satisfied with the position, and he said, yes, we lost people initially. We then end up replacing those people who are a little bit more aligned with the company position on it, and they were very satisfied with the outcome on that. And presumably they have reduced the chances of internal disruption as a result of now having people who are more in their language more focused on the mission of Coinbase as the primary driving motivation rather than seeing Coinbase as a vehicle for advancing other policies. There are other businesses that are more explicitly signing up to those policies, and that is that mission, right?
That's also another mission to say we stand for social equity, we stand for gender equality, standard for combating climate change, whatever those things might be. If that's the overriding goal for that company, then if that's also published transparently for people, then again, candidates can make the choice in or out with that. And I think that will go some way towards solving these issues.
I'm having a look so convinced actually has a page on the landing page, it's mission where they talk about this, so they absolutely embrace it and they say it's mission first. Our mission is ambitious and important. We don't engage in social or political activism, and there is a link to that as well. There's a Medium article from Brian Armstrong, so we'll put the link in the description of the episode as well. There is another one I find interesting. It's GitLab. Gitlab has a great values book, so it's often a good reference. I'm sure there are others, but I often look at GitLabs and they have a specific paragraph about this, and they say we generally avoid discussing politics or religion in public forums because it's easy to eliminate people that have a minority opinion. This doesn't mean we never discuss these topics. So we see it's difficult to have the right stance because we value diversity, inclusion, and belonging and want all team members to feel welcome and contribute equally. We encourage free discussion of operational decisions that can move toward being a more inclusive company. There is sometimes a Gray area, and so they have a long paragraph where they address all these and probably so I like your idea of saying first, don't ignore it, because if you ignore it, that will probably be worse than just saying what's the policy is.
I like the idea that it should be coming from the CEO or from top management, at least, and have a very clear sense on that. Do you have other sources, other guides, or value books similar to that of GitLab that people could look at?
Not off the top of my head. I mean, I guess I've been monitoring this theme for a little while now because it's clear that ever since, I guess, COVID George Floyd, those two things seem to happen at the same time. There was a huge kind of almost a cultural shift in terms of what a business responsibility is to society, and I think we're still wrestling with this. So I'm going to dig into some of the articles that I've shared in the Brain Food newsletter, and maybe I can share them with you, Robin. And they could be sources that would be relevant, or in fact, people might want to search the Brain Food Lauder and just type in, let's say, culture or something, politics and see whether there's stuff collected there that might be of help.
I'm looking at Buffer as well. They often have good content. So thinking of few companies like this, but I can see anything from Buffer on this. Well, thanks a lot. So I would say that the main learning would be address the issue, think about it, define a stance. Know that if you want to ban all political discussions, it's probably going to be a tricky one, like Conveys, where they eventually had to take a position. And I saw some articles, it seems that originally just after the Rich invasion, they decided not to freeze the accounts. So something that happened in between, but not sure about that. So don't take my word for it and check the articles yourself. And the best solution might probably be and will eventually be addressed the problem, be clear about it, write it down so everybody knows about it, everybody is aligned. And that's probably also something companies need to do sooner rather than later, right?
Yeah. And I think there's a reason why companies might want to do that because so far so good for in many cases there's lots of probably hidden political disputes that we've not kind of the phrase in English is that less sleeping dogs lie. I don't know whether you have this in French, because if you then disturb the dog, you don't know whether it's going to be a nice dog and then come at you and rip your face off. So I think a lot of people still have this sleeping dogs lie type of attitude to the topic. But I feel that just observing how the world is as we go forward, political polarization is getting more acute, very difficult to see how this will be moderated. I think we simply as a human species are having to deal with adversification of institutions and people that kind of claim unique knowledge on the truth. And we are in this epistemic crisis where we don't really know which one is true or not. So we end up being overly devoted to the people that kind of tell us things that we like to hear. And this, I think leads to a lot of this sense of polarization.
Like I say, unfortunately we have to work through it as a species. And however long that will be, I don't know. But as we have it in terms of timelines, it's certainly more than multi decades on. Right. In which case it would make sense for businesses to have a little bit of mitigation in first instance by this is directed principally to CEOs I don't think can come from anybody else. What is your position on this? Are you prepared to be honest about your position and can you be public with it? Because if you are all of those things, then it should go some way towards mitigating future problems all right.
And maybe my final question. Is there any legal things that we should know? Are you load as a CEO to publicly say that you're only hiring Trump voters or people who didn't vote for Trump? Are you low to do this? Are you low to be people you're hiring based on their political votes?
Every jurisdiction will be very different on this. I know in the UK, for instance, you can't be prejudiced against someone's voting behavior. But then there's a caveat. Yes, you can, if they vote for a prescribed or they belong to a prescribed group. So there are nuances associated with all of this stuff. And these things will shift over time based on the current sort of government's own political position and calculations. And it will also differ, of course, across jurisdictions. So I guess it's one of those where, I mean, there's an additional complication. How do you deal with multi jurisdictional organization where you got employees everywhere? How can you have a policy, then where different people are in different jurisdictions? So, yeah, super complicated.
Right. And then there's another question about diversity. You'd also want to have some political diversity in your company, and that's something that's sometimes lacking, especially in Silicon Valley companies where it's very uniform.
Yeah. This is entirely the Musk Peter Field sort of position, and which is why they're broadly embraced by all kinds of characters going from the extreme right to more central types that say, you know what? Certainly in Metropolitan centers, there has been a dominance of socially progressive viewpoints, which has large parts driven out more conservative viewpoints. And how do we correct back for that if indeed that's the right thing to do? A lot of people would say that's the wrong thing to do. It's morally incorrect to do. So we're back to this type of argument, the concept of political diversity. I think this is where we come into a real problem with even the concept of diversity. Right. Because at some level, you're going to need homogeneity in terms of value set rather than heterogeneity. And that's something we're not ready. It's not a conversation we're ready to have in the De and IB space, because there's basically a fundamental flaw behind the concept of diversity, which is related to the paradox of tolerance. Right. At what point are you tolerating everything until you tolerate intolerance, for instance? Well, you probably should actually, if you're absoluteist in terms of tolerance, then, yeah, you would.
So all of these things go into a circle and a conundrum. And I guess the role of the CEO and what HR and Tape people need to do is to figure out where along that circles edge do we decide to stop and say, you know what, we have to kind of put it here because we can't go to the logical end of this because it will ultimately mean the incoherence of the organization. I mean, you can absolutely see that that might happen.
Right. So that's a very thorny subject and very hard to do it. Right. But hopefully we'll see more guidance in the years to come and we're opening the conversation about it.
That's it. Robert, I appreciate you kind of taking a risk and going sideline on this. We have kind of gone off peace but like I say in the preamble that we had off camera, it's like, okay, no one seems to be talking about this and while I don't think either of us have particular fixed positions on it, I think it is important to start surfacing conversation up because we're going to need some guidance on what to do because if the world trends the way we will trend and inevitably we're going to encounter these issues and it's almost like you got to have a plan fire now rather than a forest fire later. Right. You've got to control this rather than have it happen to you in an uncontrolled way.
Right. Well, thanks a lot, recruiting brain fools. This week in recruiting we'll put the links and there was a great discussion and looking forward to maybe having you again on eight players and keep on opening new subjects.
Great. Thanks for having me on the show, Robin.
This is Robert. Most of our listeners come from word of mouth so thanks a lot for your support and if you enjoy the players, please keep on sharing it with your team and friends. Stay tuned for the next episode and if you can't wait, follow me on LinkedIn for more content on recruiting.