Meg Whitman, Peter Thiel and the CEO’s dilemma: Is it wise to pick sides in an election?

By Tina Irgang

On Aug. 2, Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman announced she was backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. On the same day, legendary executive Warren Buffett appeared at a Clinton campaign event in Nebraska. Donald Trump also has received CEO endorsements, including from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Who is lining up behind which candidate, and is it a good idea for CEOs to get political?

On the face of it, endorsing candidates is a risky proposition for CEOs, especially if their companies are publicly held. “In an age of polarization, some large percentage of employees, shareholders, family members, industry colleagues and counterparts are sure to be offended by either of the binary choices CEOs could make,” Fortune notes.

Indeed, the risks of making — or even intending to make — political endorsements have also been in evidence this campaign season. In June, Silicon Valley Republicans and some members of the media received invitations to a Trump campaign fundraiser at the home of Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, according to The Hill.

Following reports of “significant outrage within the ranks of Intel,” according to The Washington Post, Krzanich took to Twitter to say that he was not endorsing any candidate in the presidential election. The fundraiser was cancelled.

Which CEOs are speaking out?

It’s important to note that many of the CEOs who have come out in support of either candidate are no longer active leaders of their companies, such as former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson (who supports Clinton) and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus (who supports Trump).

However, that doesn’t mean some active CEOs haven’t stepped into the fray.

Executives who have endorsed Clinton include:

  • Michael Bloomberg. The former mayor of New York City and CEO of Bloomberg L.P. gave a speech endorsing Clinton at last week’s Democratic National Convention.
  • Reed Hastings. “Trump would destroy much of what is great about America. Hillary Clinton is the strong leader we need,” the Netflix CEO said in a statement released by Clinton’s campaign.
  • James Murren. Unlike many executives on the Clinton endorsement list, the CEO of MGM Resorts International hasn’t been “notably political” in the past, notes Fortune.

Executives who have endorsed Trump include:

  • Sheldon Adelson. The CEO of Las Vegas Sands, a casino empire, has said he would support the Republican nominee and that Trump “won [the nomination] fair and square,” according to The New York Times.
  • Pete Coors. The chairman of beer giant MillerCoors has hosted a high-profile fundraiser for Trump along with former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan.
  • Peter Thiel. The PayPal co-founder was a delegate for Trump at the Republican National Convention and made history in a high-profile speech there by becoming “the first person to publicly announce to the GOP convention that he is gay,” according to NBC News. (While Thiel is no longer the CEO of PayPal, he serves in executive positions at several other companies.)

The question, of course, is whether an endorsement of either candidate by an active CEO could alienate potential customers or employees. A recent survey from Weber Shandwick shows that 45 percent of consumers say they are less likely to buy from a company if they disagree with a CEO’s publicly expressed opinion.

So why do CEOs speak out? If you scan your Facebook feed, it will tell you that many people with political opinions feel the need to share them publicly, often in an attempt to change minds. CEOs are no different in that respect, but the stakes involved in political expression are higher. In fact, any CEO who is tempted to share political opinions would be well advised to consider the potential costs of speaking out — to the bottom line, to the company’s reputation and, not least of all, to the employees relying on both of those factors being sound.

Tina Irgang is the managing editor of SmartCEO magazine and SmartCEO.com. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.