Inc.: Discussing Politics Is a Red Flag at the Office. Here's How to Navigate Safely.

Political activism is complicated enough. Your personal and professional life is scrutinized, your motivations are doubted, and your every word is parsed. Lots of friends may feel differently from you. Running a business while being politically active is even more complicated. Your company can come under fire, or your employees may disagree with you. Even if a customer agrees, they still may want to distance themselves from your activism. Politics and business is a difficult balance to strike.

YPO member Dirk Bak has mastered this tightrope walk. After years of political activism, he understands the repercussions that can result, and has found equilibrium between business and politics. He has been able to continue running a successful business with customers all over the political spectrum, while also advocating for his beliefs and exercising his constitutional rights.

Bak is the President of SDQ Janitorial, one of the top providers of custodial cleaning in Minnesota. SDQ services commercial buildings, provides disaster cleanup, and offers furniture maintenance, serving over 500 customers and thousands of buildings. In 2012, Bak was the Co-Chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign in Minnesota, and he’s worked on several local congressional campaigns. Bak also has a JD, and is a graduate of Harvard’s OPM program. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal named him to their 40 Under 40 list and awarded him the Young Entrepreneurial Award.

1. Keep Your Sense of Humor

Business and politics are heavy enough subjects independently. Combine them, and a less careful person might have a recipe for disaster. Bak, however, is as affable as they come, and not afraid to laugh at himself. After all, his nickname in the industry is “Dirty Dirk,” since he’s in the business of cleaning. “It’s a natural fit,” he admits. And when you step up to be a campaign chair on one side or another, “You’re picking a narrow lane!” Bak warns as he smiles. For example, “People know that I’m Mormon. So the thought would be, ‘Because he’s Mormon, he supported Mitt,'” Bak says. “But that would be like saying, ‘I’m Mormon, so I support Harry Reid.’ Reid’s also Mormon, and we couldn’t be further from each other on the spectrum!” he laughs. You’ve got to laugh with it. And I think I’m probably a lot more personable because of that,” he shares. Don’t let your political affiliations overshadow your personality.

2. Make Corporate Donations Carefully

Bak is emphatic about this. “Watch your corporate donations!” he advises. Bak also says you have to consider context: “You really have to look at the geographic area you’re in.” Bak may be an active Republican, but he knows that “a lot of times, you’re going to have to support based on the candidate specifically, and not so much the party,” he explains. Depending on the political realities, “You need to support candidates on both sides on certain topics,” he urges. So if you’re going to make a corporate campaign contribution, do so only after careful consideration.

3. Stay True to Your Values

Customers are always watching, so don’t undermine your business or compromise your customers. What customers see in your politics shouldn’t be altogether different from what they see in your business. For Bak, this meant focusing on economic issues rather than social ones. He shares, “Being a business owner, running a sizeable business and servicing a lot of Fortune 500 companies that are all over the spectrum politically, it’s a lot about fiscal issues. So in my case, I focused on the fiscal issues…That business part is what I was drawn to. I stayed away from the social issue piece.” Your core values should apply to your personal life, your business, your politics, and everything in between. Bak says, “It’s like the adage you hear from your parents: ‘Remember who you are, and remember what you say and what you represent.’ That’s something I took very seriously.” Your customers don’t have to agree with your political beliefs, but they do have to know you’re honest and consistent.

4. Know Your Role

In business, politics, and everything else, every action produces a reaction. When you join a political campaign while running a business, “there are repercussions,” Bak confirms. No matter what, not everyone is going to agree with you. It’s true when dealing with clients, and it’s true in your own office, too. Bak shares, “I have direct employees that are not for my candidate, or are absolutely not for my party. You have to be sensitive to them.” Bak is careful to have clear boundaries, and understands that even as a supporter, convincing others is not his job. It’s really up to the candidate to get people to support them. You’re just a vehicle to that individual to help clarify,” he points out. Most important of all is to keep your cool. “Politics, like religion, is obviously very divisive. Within that context, people really need to understand that these turn into emotional contests for people,” Bak acknowledges. “And no matter what, you can’t win an emotional argument,” he advises.

5. Find the Common Ground

I’m a big believer in finding the win-win in business. It’s always there; it’s just a matter of finding it. Bak is the same way, asserting, “You have to find common ground with people.” Not everyone will agree with you, and that’s ok. “Find the common ground!” he repeats emphatically. Bak advises a straightforward, accessible approach. “Let them come to you and ask the hard questions,” he encourages. But he goes even further: “Remember that it’s ok not to have all the answers.” Exercising this empathy and humility is the best way to maintain strong business relationships no matter the other’s political bent.

Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside YPO, the world’s premiere peer-to-peer organization for chief executives, eligible at age 45 or younger.

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