Keep politics out of business

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Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) In medieval England, nobles owned serfs who worked the land and owed everything -- their homes, their jobs, the small percentage of produce they kept -- to the lord of the manor. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, this feudal arrangement had disintegrated, only to be replaced by mighty industrialists who could instruct their workers on how to vote.

The resulting "rotten boroughs" could be delivered to the candidate most partial to the factory owner or manufacturer. It took centuries of electoral reform before anything approaching a democratic election was made possible in England.

I was reminded of this history lesson recently when I read in the New York Times that some business leaders have taken to writing to their workforce to "instruct" them on the merits of one or the other of the candidates in the U.S. presidential election. The letters are often threatening, implying (without much subtlety) that the success of one candidate could cause errant voters to lose their jobs.

"The economy doesn't currently pose a threat to your job. What does threaten your job, however, is another four years of the same presidential administration," wrote David A. Siegel, CEO of Westgate Resorts, in a letter to employees of the company, according to the Times. "If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current president plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company."

There's been much debate about whether this kind of corporate communication is legal, advisable, productive or wise. Personally, I've never found attempting to intimidate the people who create my wealth to be a particularly inspiring way to get them to do a better job every day. I think that if you treat people like serfs, you can't be surprised if you get peasants.

So I think this kind of corporate communication is, at the very least, a stupid way to run a business. Telling creative people how to think is a sure-fire way of ensuring that they won't want to. I'm also very disappointed to see what should be modern companies acting like dead civilizations. I don't care whose side these executives are on. They live in -- and belong to -- the past.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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