At Boxed's SoHo office, in New York City, you'll find employees still wearing Hillary shirts.

The online wholesale grocer's CEO and founder, Chieh Huang, recalled his employees taking to Slack to air their feelings about the results of the presidential election. Huang said he had to take a step back and remind his New York employees that the company has a lot of employees based in Texas. When the midterm election came around, he did the same thing--encourage employees to go out and vote without bringing up politics.

"My No. 1 job when I walk into the door is to create an atmosphere in which people don't feel like they're judged based on what they feel politically," said Huang on Tuesday at 92Y in New York City.

Huang took the stage with Jennifer Fitzgerald, co-founder of online insurance marketplace Policygenius, Jon Stein, founder of investment management service Betterment, and Jill Schlesinger of CBS. The topic? How to operate a mission-driven company in a politically charged environment.

The past year has seen a huge rise in employee activism, with workers taking to task some of the country's biggest tech companies on a range of issues. Earlier this month, thousands of Google employees around the world walked out to protest their employer's handling of sexual harassment claims. A week later, the company said it would end its forced arbitration policy (Facebook, Airbnb, and eBay quickly followed suit). Other protests have gone after everything from low wages to companies' dealings with the Pentagon.

"[These companies are] coming under deserved criticism, [as] they're not upholding strong values," said Stein.

At the same time, startups are taking increasingly bold stances on political issues when they directly affect their employees. During the turmoil around the Affordable Care Act, Fitzgerald said that Policygenius wrote up op-eds about the importance of the ACA to the business of insurance and for consumers. Boxed female employees recently testified before Nevada legislators on why they should eliminate the "tampon tax," a 6.85 percent tax imposed specifically on feminine products. Voters agreed and approved a measure to abolish the tax. While still obligated to collect sales tax on these products in more than 30 states, Boxed is rebating the money to customers, at a cost of $1 million a month, Huang said.

The founder said he's willing to take the hit to his bottom line because it affects employee retention--employees want to work for companies that take a stand on issues they care about. "Keeping morale high and subsiding things people care about is really smart in the long run," he said.

While private companies have more leeway when it comes to mingling their missions with politics, the ones that do this successfully establish a set of clear, consistent corporate values early on. "As a startup company, one of the levers that you have and advantages that you have over the JPMorgans of the world is that you can be intentional about culture and values and mission as a way to attract people from companies that out-pay you," said Fitzgerald.

A former consultant at McKinsey, Fitzgerald said her former employer had "Value Day," when everyone gathered to talk about and reflect on the personal values most important to them. She has incorporated that same transparency into her 150-person startup with semiannual anonymous surveys, all-hands meetings, and once-a-month CEO office hours.

Stein added that as mission-driven companies grow, their values--and the way founders communicate them--must evolve. When his company was still small, Stein spoke with customers frequently until his company started to scale in 2014. While he can no longer personally interact with customers, he leans on his 240-person team to schedule periodic coffee meetings to get feedback with customers. This only works, Stein said, if you "hire people who perpetuate [your] values."

On that subject, each founder had a go-to interview tactic to suss out the true character of job candidates. Stein has applicants tell their life story in two minutes. He said that the point is not to see how much the candidate can fit into the time frame; rather, it is to know what drives people and their passion. Huang uses the "asshole test," in which he asks employees to talk about something that can't be found on their résumé​ to weed out the people with huge egos. Fitzgerald uses the "chucklehead test," asking the hardest thing the applicant has had to overcome, which helps reveal a person's integrity and self-awareness.

Beyond how you hire, being mindful of small details in the day-to-day operations of a company is key, the founders said. Huang recently visited a fulfillment center in Las Vegas where he learned that the biggest concern for his fulfillment workers was very different from that of his staff members--not having a toilet paper holder. To help create a more empathetic workplace, he makes sure that all employees experience working in fulfillment centers. At Policygenius, Fitzgerald said that because customer support employees start their calls at 9 a.m., everyone else comes in at that time to create a fair environment.

"Very thoughtful things can make a big difference," she said.

Published on: Nov 28, 2018