When 145 leaders in the technology sector signed an open letter condemning GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, they included a disclaimer: The message reflected only the signees' personal views, and not those of their companies or organizations.
Keeping work and politics separate is standard practice for most business owners and employees. Roughly three-quarters of human resources professionals say their workplaces discourage political activity in the office, according to a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). But in this heated election season, a handful of startups are bucking convention.
Riding the momentum of the open letter and venture capitalist Hunter Walk's call for companies to give workers time off for voting, the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based app company Winnie wrote a post on Medium on August 9 declaring that her company was endorsing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for president.
"This is what we as a company really stand for," Sara Mauskopf says. "We just chatted about it--we do a lot of our talking over Slack--and everyone was really in agreement that Hillary Clinton's values are really in line with Winnie's values."
Mauskopf followed up the post with a list on Quora of other businesses that have informed her they are endorsing Clinton. The list of 11 companies includes child-care startup Trusted, which posted its own Medium entry asserting that Clinton has stronger stances on family issues than Trump does. Other tech companies on the list include KYA, weeSpring, and Managed by Q.
Mauskopf, whose startup counts Walk as an investor, says its endorsement largely came down to what she describes as Clinton's record of supporting women, children, and families. Winnie, known as the "Yelp for parents," provides information about family-friendly amenities at businesses at other locations, such as highchairs, changing tables, and kids' menus.
Trump's infamous call to evict a crying baby from one of his campaign events and opposition to public breastfeeding didn't help his case with the startup, either. "It became an easy call when we saw what Donald Trump stands for," Mauskopf says.
The CEO admits that, from a workplace perspective, the company has an easier time than might a larger business at rallying staff behind a common political aim. Winnie, founded in January, counts only four employees and three contractors in its ranks. But that doesn't mean the endorsement is free from a potential downside.
"The stakes are high for us, too, because we are trying to attract a lot of users at this point," Mauskopf says. Appearing partisan could turn off current and potential users. To deflect a possible backlash somewhat, she emphasizes that Winnie's stance is about the individual candidates, not their political parties.
Not that Winnie plans on holding back with users. The company is running a promotion closer to November in which it will encourage users to take their kids along when they hit the polls on Election Day, and post "stories" (Winnie's version of Yelp reviews) about their experiences. As part of the promotion, the company will ask users to share Mauskopf's Medium post.
While Winnie's endorsement may not alienate members of its small staff, a workplace adopting an official political position brings up touchy issues.
The SHRM survey from June reports HR professionals have seen less political conversation in the workplace as compared with past elections, surmising that it's in part because the presidential race is even more polarizing than usual. Survey responses indicated employees were trying to avoid conflict. The organization also notes that at most companies, workplace policies prohibit coercing employees or co-workers into expressing certain political views.
"Even a minor increase in political volatility can create major headaches in the workplace if not managed well," said the organization's survey director, Evren Esen, in a statement. With the election fast approaching, "HR professionals must be tuned in for changes in the culture of their organizations and recognize that tension may increase in the coming months, making it necessary to stress collaboration."