Koch election mailing to employees sparks controversy

Earlier this month, the corporate parent of Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific sent its 50,000 employees election-related material that included a list of political candidates supported by the company.

The mailing by Koch Industries drew national attention, raising the question of whether employers should bring politics into the workplace, and to what degree.

It’s the kind of a move some metro Atlanta corporations say they wouldn’t make, although some said they have contacted their employees to share voter information.

The Koch Industries mailing also contained a letter from company President Dave Robertson and opinion pieces written by top executives David and Charles Koch, who are brothers and prominent backers of conservative causes. David Koch’s commentary states his support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In his letter, Robertson emphasized that the decision of which candidates to vote for belonged to individual workers.

While Koch can’t follow its employees into the voting booth or ask them how they cast their ballots, eligible voters in metro Atlanta had different reactions to the idea of companies suggesting candidates that should get their employees’ votes.

Woodstock resident Holly Jones, who does not work for Georgia-Pacific, said: “My gut reaction is that I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s a business’ job to even inform employees about an election. Their job is to make widgets or whatever and let me educate myself on my own time.”

But Eric Wolman of Suwanee, also not an employee of the company, said: “I don’t see an issue with companies putting opinions out there that would be best for the company. Telling folks what would be best for the business, I think, is fair play.”

He said, however, “There should be no intimidation by the company in the letters they put out.”

Georgia-Pacific said the mailing was not intended as an act of intimidation. But a specialist in human resources said workers might see it differently.

“Employees could perceive this as the company taking a political stance and it puts a little pressure on them,” said Margaret Hintz, manager of human resources services for Insperity, which provides solutions for human resources and business performance to companies. “You don’t want to do that.”

She added, “While any company can provide employees resources to participate in the political process, they should not pressure employees to support a particular candidate or issue. A well-crafted policy that outlines what is allowed and what isn’t not only makes it easier to keep the peace, it also helps to protect a company from claims of a hostile work environment.”

In his Oct. 1 note, Robertson wrote, “If we elect candidates who want to spend hundreds of billions in borrowed money on costly new subsidies for a few favored cronies, put unprecedented regulatory burdens on businesses, prevent or delay important new construction projects and excessively hinder free trade, then many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences, including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation and other ills.”

Recipients of the mailing included 30,000 Georgia-Pacific workers. GP has about 3,000 employees in the Atlanta area and about 6,400 in Georgia, and all of them would have received it, a spokesman said.

Georgia-Pacific said that, “based on frequent requests,” it provided employees with a list of candidates in their statement “who are among those that have been supported by the Koch companies and KOCHPAC, our employee political action committee.”

The company added, “We make it clear that any decision about which candidates to support belongs solely to our employees based on factors that are most important to them, and this is in no way an attempt to ‘intimidate’ employees.”

Workers are a common target for politicking. Unions also endorse candidates and try to influence the votes of their members.

But the Koch mailing drew more attention after it appeared on the pro-union website In These Times. Media outlets also reported on it, along with stories about executives in Florida and Michigan who have also urged employees to vote for Romney.

Wednesday, a new posting on In These Times detailed how Romney, in a June 6 conference call posted on the website of the National Federation of Independent Business, urged employers to tell their employees what candidate could have the most positive impact on their businesses.

Romney is quoted as saying: “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.”

Some large companies based in metro Atlanta said they have encouraged employees to vote, but they would never endorse candidates or suggest how workers should mark their ballots. Some did, however, publicly support this summer’s local T-SPLOST referendum, which failed.

Delta Air Lines said it generally does not ask employees to vote, “and we certainly don’t ask them to vote in one particular way,” spokesman Trebor Banstetter said.

“We never endorse candidates,” he added.

Delta did ask workers to vote in last summer’s T-SPLOST referendum, Banstetter said, but it did not ask them to vote in a particular way. Delta CEO Richard Anderson publicly supported the referendum.

Coca-Cola said it encourages employees to vote but does not advocate positions. And a Southern Co. spokesman said the company “does not take a position on candidates and does not recommend how employees should vote.

UPS voiced its reasons for supporting the T-SPLOST, company spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said, “but we still want people to make up their own minds.”

“We certainly don’t encourage people to vote a certain way, but we do encourage people to vote,” she said. “We just talk about it as being a responsibility to citizenship.”