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HR Magazine, August 2004 - Office Politics

By Charlotte Garvey  8/1/2004
 

HR Magazine, August 2004Vol. 49, No. 8

To ignite employees participation in the political process, employers launch get-out-the-vote programs. 

Employer-sponsored drives to involve employees in the political process are mushrooming. One of the reasons employers are jumping on the get-out-the-vote bandwagon is the reality that many elections are decided by razor-thin margins, with the most visible example being the 2000 presidential contest. In addition, the expansion of computer-based communication tools has made getting the word out to employees a more efficient and economical process.

To be sure, businesses are not telling rank-and-file employees for whom to vote; that would be illegal. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) can levy fines against individuals or organizations that violate communication rules, with the fine level tied to the severity of the violation.

However, by giving employees an opportunity to register to vote and by giving them access to issue-related information, within the legal boundaries, companies are hoping employees will consider voting for candidates who support business-endorsed positions.

“Our get-out-the-vote initiative is about employees voting informed in 2004 on issues important to our businesses,” says Lynne Schmidt, vice president of governmental and community affairs at Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc., a manufacturer of consumer and industrial products that include paint, sealants, adhesives and glass.

While most of these efforts are driven by companies’ governmental affairs operations, many HR professionals are playing a role in the success of voter registration, get-out-the-vote and other programs as well as ensuring balanced communication of the efforts.

Do’s and Don’ts

Federal election law draws clear lines between election-related communications that are allowed to go out to the entire workforce and communications that can go out only to what is known as the “restricted class,” which includes stockholders and management personnel, such as salaried, professional or supervisory staff, and their families. Party- or candidate-specific endorsements can be communicated to the restricted class. Similarly, companies can solicit contributions for company-sponsored political action committees only from the restricted class.

But companies are allowed to sponsor nonpartisan get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives targeting the entire workforce. Companies also can make available voter guides, which are defined under the Federal Election Campaign Act as the nonpartisan presentation of information on candidates’ positions on specific issues.

This can include information on how politicians’ votes square with the company’s position on specific issues. For example, many company-sponsored election materials use software that allows the employee to pull up factual material on candidates. That information often includes a list of issues or legislation of interest to the company, with an “x” or a check mark next to each item signaling how the legislator has voted relative to the company’s position on the issue.

Employers can distribute voter guides prepared by nonprofit organizations or by the employer. But the guides must feature at least two candidates and their positions on issues. And the information cannot expressly advocate the election or defeat of a particular candidate.

The Prosperity Project, run by the Business-Industry Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C., is one of the major players providing this information in the get-out-the-vote and voter registration business. The Prosperity Project, which was launched in 1999, boasts paid members of about 400 corporations and trade associations, such as PPG, Exxon-Mobil Corp., International Paper Co., Caterpillar Inc., the Business Roundtable, the National Mining Association and the American Forest & Paper Association.

In the 2002 election cycle, Prosperity Project members recorded 348,000 voter registrations, with 11 million voting-related messages, such as e-mail reminders that Election Day was approaching, or that new information on candidates was available on companies’ intranets.

The Prosperity Project provides paid members with what the group calls a “political tool- kit.” The toolkit includes customized web pages with links to official state-sponsored sites where they can register to vote, request a hard copy of a registration form to mail in or request an absentee ballot. The sites also enable employees to research specific candidates through a ZIP-code-driven database. The program also can provide e-mail messages and paper-based communications such as posters about upcoming elections. The Prosperity Project provides assistance to its members to ensure that the content of communications with rank-and-file employees is impartial, notes Darrell Shull, executive director of the Prosperity Project.

Micaela Isler, political director at financial services company Household International Inc., a subsidiary of HSBC North America Holdings Inc. based in Prospect Heights, Ill., describes her company as a pioneer user of the Prosperity Project tools. Household, which began using the tools in 2000, has 33,000 employees in North America and the United Kingdom.

Since starting out with a bare-bones program, Household has stepped up its efforts with a customized intranet site that includes a letter from Household’s CEO urging employees to register and vote. Household’s site also provides extensive voting record information on national, state and local political candidates. (For more information on the structure of these drives, see “A Mix of Options”.)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers members similar information through its web site, www.voteforbusiness.com.

For companies that want to create their own sites, the FEC can help with its campaign guide aimed at corporations and labor organizations, which provides guidance on appropriate communications with employees.

Employee Reaction

Voting is a personal and private experience. And some employees may feel uneasy that their employer is encouraging them to vote, even though it isn’t telling them how to vote. Companies that have embarked on these initiatives recognize this potential discomfort and are careful about how they communicate the programs.

While some employees have communicated they would rather not receive voting-related information from their employers, the negative response has been minimal. At Exxon-Mobil, one of the Prosperity Project’s most active members, 3.5 million communications generated through the program prompted 18 negative responses.

At PPG, employee reaction to the program has been positive for the most part, Schmidt notes. Following the 2002 election cycle, a survey of 1,100 employees about the program generated a positive response. “A very small percentage [5 percent] said that we were trying to influence their decision-making,” Schmidt notes. But she adds, “If your employees find their employer credible, you are giving them something they want to help them make their decisions.”

The Prosperity Project also sponsored a study of employee reaction to its program following the 2002 election cycle. “Employees see this as a valuable service,” says Shull. “But employers have to provide fact-based information,” he adds.

The study concluded that most employees surveyed valued the voting-related information provided by employers. The study also concluded that the more messages sent to employees, the more positive the employees’ responses. “You can’t just send one notice and call it a day,” says John Runyan, Washington, D.C., representative of International Paper, which has its headquarters in Stamford, Conn. He notes that the Prosperity Project’s 2002 study found that employees who received seven to nine voting-related communications from their employers gave the program the highest marks, with 81 percent rating the program as good or excellent.

HR’s Role

Communication is important when striking the right tone with get-out-the-vote messages. HR can provide guidance on how to communicate these campaigns without appearing to influence employees’ decisions on how to vote.

“HR is an important conduit,” says Shull, for delivering voting information, whether it involves a companywide e-mail broadcast or distribution of literature.

HR managers already are attuned to privacy concerns due to the nature of the job, which is an important component of these efforts, Shull notes. “We work with HR in setting up a system that it is comfortable with to safeguard the privacy of its employees” so they don’t feel someone is looking over their shoulder.

Because of its compensation responsibilities, HR also has a good handle on employee classifications that define who is in the restricted class and who is not, which determines what kind of information can be communicated to whom. HR is “the guardian of the contact list,” says Shull.

Don Stine, manager of HR at PPG’s two coatings and resins research facilities just outside Pittsburgh, says he receives feedback from employees reacting to the program. “I get people who talk to me, whether they are in favor or not in favor.” But he adds that PPG does not push people to vote a specific way. The company encourages employees to look at candidates’ voting records via the PPG web site and “you make up your own mind,” Stine says.

Linda Burke, director of human resources at Household International’s credit card call center in Las Vegas, echoes this view, saying she has experienced no negative feedback from the program because “we don’t push.” She lets employees know the information is available, and the message is “Pick it up if you want to.”

Communication is also fostered in HR offices at plants and satellite operations because the offices serve as distribution areas for documents such as forms to request an absentee ballot. Schmidt notes her company’s HR office is a familiar place for employees to go for information.

Aside from the employee relations area, HR also serves other departments in these efforts. A nexus between HR and government relations worked well to energize employees and retirees on the Medicare prescription drug legislation, Schmidt says. Across PPG’s U.S. operations, “We asked all of our HR managers and directors [restricted class members] to contact their two senators and members of Congress” to set up meetings at many PPG locations.

“We chose that particular issue because we believed it was something important to employees because we provide retiree health coverage,” Schmidt says. “Our retirees obviously have an interest as well.” Involvement by HR was helpful because of its expertise in the employee benefits area. PPG has 20,000 employees at its U.S. operations, along with about 14,000 retirees.

HR professionals are “a key component of our program,” adds Ned Monroe, political affairs director at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a trade association in Arlington, Va. ABC provides its members with sample materials that individual companies can customize, including hard copies of paycheck stuffers encouraging employees to register and vote, and sample letters that employees can use to communicate their views on particular subjects to their legislators.

The FEC allows employers to take specific positions on issues, communicate those views and give employees the option of writing letters to legislators. It does not allow companies to direct rank-and-file employees not to vote for a certain politician because his position differs from the company’s stance—but it is legal to convey factual information regarding that candidate’s position and have employees draw their own conclusion.

ABC also provides web-based access to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s web site, which enables voters to view congres- sional candidates’ business-oriented voting records. While ABC encourages a company CEO or other top leader to launch the program, “it is often the HR professional who actually implements our program,” which includes the distribution of informational packets and paycheck stuffers, Monroe says, adding that his association recognizes the key role that HR staff plays and encourages members to appoint an HR professional as grassroots coordinator at company worksites.

Charlotte Garvey is a freelance writer, based in the Washington, D.C., area, who reports on business and environmental issues.

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A Mix of Options

While many companies manage the voter registration process using only their intranets, some employers use a variety of options, including hard copy dissemination and posters, depending on the nature of the operation.

For example, Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc., a manufacturer of consumer and industrial products that include paint, sealants, adhesives and glass, posts information on its public Internet site. “We chose to make it an Internet site because we have production employees across the United States who don’t necessarily have computer access at work,” says Lynne Schmidt, vice president of governmental and community affairs. That also gives employees the option of tapping into the voting resources from a computer at home or at a public library, she notes.

In addition, PPG recently sponsored PPG Day at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, which included a voter registration station aimed at PPG employees living in the region. The event tied into a traveling presidential history exhibit at the museum, Schmidt notes. The voter registration station at the museum included a computer display of web-based voting information and hard copies of voter registration forms for Pennsylvania as well as nearby Ohio and West Virginia.

Different Campaign

Among the most visible political advocates in the business community is Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings in South Burlington, Vt., the specialty ice-cream maker. But the company makes an important distinction between how it sends its message to customers vs. employees.

The company’s founders are well-known for their vocal support of political causes, particularly in the environmental arena, which also are highlighted through links on the company’s web site.

“As part of the company DNA, voter registration has been a big deal,” says Marty Hogan, director of brand management. But much of the voter registration effort focuses on Ben & Jerry’s customers rather than employees.

Ben & Jerry’s web site includes a link to MTV’s Rock the Vote program, which encourages viewers to register to vote. The company also sends ice-cream trucks around the state, offering ice cream and an opportunity for consumers to register to vote.

Internally, the company takes a relatively low-key—and low-tech—approach to activating its employees. The company periodically sets up a voter registration table at major company events, such as all-hands meetings. But Hogan observes that his company tends to attract employees who are likely to be politically active to begin with, so voter registration is not a huge need. “It would be a travesty to find out we had 100 people who are not registered to vote,” he says with a laugh, while noting there are always employees who have just become old enough to vote or who have recently moved to Vermont and may need to register.

Hogan says Ben & Jerry’s is careful not to link the voter registration process to specific candidate endorsement. But he notes that, “as a brand, we do take positions on issues.”