How divisive public discourse is affecting business relationships—and what you can do about it.
Sharla Lau sensed where the conversation was going with one of her clients—and it wasn’t about houses. It was shortly after the presidential election last November, and the aftermath of the intensely partisan contest was clearly on the buyer’s mind. As Lau and her client toured listings together, the buyer began making leading comments about abortion and “alternative lifestyles,” begging for her response, Lau says. He criticized Congress and the rancor in Washington. And then Lau braced when he turned his attention to her personally: “So, who did you vote for?” She declined to respond.
“Yes, I have my thoughts and beliefs, but they are mine,” says Lau, ABR, GRI, vice president of Coldwell Banker Fleming-Lau Realty in Fort Smith, Ark. “I have found it’s not safe or wise—professionally or personally—to discuss personal beliefs with strangers.” She told her client she would rather they stay focused on discussing real estate, and they moved on to have a friendly working relationship. Lau is hardly alone. In this hyperpolitical environment, practitioners are finding themselves grappling with potentially uncomfortable conversations with clients more frequently than ever.
Even eight months out from the election, “this kind of thing still happens all the time with clients,” says Joe Mock, e-PRO, a sales associate with Cutler Real Estate in Cincinnati. “I’ve had to deal with politics in my business more now than at any other point in my 21 years in real estate. I’ve heard more than once: ‘I’ll bet you’re a Republican because you’re a businessman.’ And I literally say, ‘I don’t talk religion or politics with clients.’”
Even if you know better than to raise contentious topics, do you have a ready approach for dealing with others who tend toward the incendiary? How much discomfort will you tolerate from quarrelsome peers before deciding to leave a brokerage or stop working with a client whose views you find virulent? Or are you the one who needs to develop better filters for your own speech?
Blurred Lines Between Professional, Personal
Savvy real estate practitioners have long been careful to avoid mixing political talk with business, but in today’s world, deep ideological divides and rampant rhetoric from all sides are putting many on edge and sometimes blurring professional lines. No matter where you go—on social media or in the real world—polarizing commentary is making it trickier to assess how to navigate your communications with clients and colleagues, even when you’re not the one getting political.
Given that real estate is a relationship business at its core, the professional advice to simply stick to the nuts and bolts of helping buyers and sellers with transactions may not always cut it. “There’s an expectation for you to be genuine and transparent as a real estate professional. But you want to make sure your genuineness is not provocative in a way that disrespects people,” says 2011 NAR President Ron Phipps, ABR, GRI, who is helping to develop a REALTOR® University course on online etiquette for real estate professionals. “Great reputations are built one brick at a time, and buildings can come down with one bad move. You can destroy your reputation with one comment.”
Severing Ties With Serious Offenders
Sometimes, practitioners have to make hard decisions in order to avoid conflict over personal views with their customers—including disassociating with those who become too irate. In May, REALTOR® Magazine convened two focus groups—one with nine brokers and another with nine agents—during the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C., to learn how the highly charged political climate may be affecting business relationships. All participants acknowledged seeing a rise in politically infused online behavior from both colleagues and clients in the last year. Some said they’ve defriended or stopped following some business contacts. Several have a personal policy never to become online “friends” with a client until a transaction is over.
Mock, who participated in one of the focus groups, says he has defriended both clients and personal contacts recently for making “serious” negative political comments on his Facebook page. Some have gone as far as to suggest the president be killed, he says. Mock believes associating with people like that threatens his business. “If you’re a friend of mine, anybody else who’s my friend is a friend of yours by association,” he says. “If I stayed friends with someone like that, my clients would say, ‘That’s not the Joe I know.’”
The focus group discussions also revealed that there is little consensus about how real estate companies should handle difficult situations. Four of the nine participating brokers said they have no formal social media policies in place. One broker from Oklahoma had to fire two agents who refused to “go neutral” on hot-button political issues on the company’s social media feeds. Because the business of real estate is often affected by politics, some participants said that focusing on REALTOR® Party issues rather than partisan politics was the best way to avoid alienating clients and colleagues.
“Politics are an inherent part of real estate and do have a place in client dialogue,” says Doug Sager, a sales associate with The Grubb Company in Oakland, Calif. “One of the many hats we wear as a real estate professional is the hat of a teacher. We educate our clients on matters that affect them, and we cannot be afraid to bring up topics that impact their goals. It also shows that REALTORS® are about much more than seeking the next closing check; we are a viable political force with a powerful voice in all levels of government.”
Is it Ever OK to Reveal Personal Views?
Perhaps the person who needs to watch what they say is you. Real estate agents have lost clients—and their jobs—after making divisive political remarks in public forums. Even REALTOR® association leaders have had missteps. During the 2016 election, REALTORS® threatened to rescind their RPAC donations in response to a state president’s online political comments. And in January, an agent in Peoria, Ill., was fired after engaging in a cantankerous Twitter spat over political views that went viral online.
Real estate pros are public ambassadors for their communities, so they should remember that they are representing their business and neighborhoods at all times and on all forums—even if their intent is to “switch” to their personal persona, says Marki Lemons-Rhyal, a Chicago-based real estate coach who teaches social media ethics. “You shouldn’t be a practitioner and shouldn’t have a license if you think, ‘I’ll say whatever I want to say,’” she says. “You don’t get to take your real estate hat off. If you get online and rant and rave, that sends the message that you won’t work with a certain type of client.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that professionals must always avoid expressing personal beliefs. But if you do, you have to be willing to accept the consequences. Susan Young, broker in charge at Express Real Estate in Weaverville, N.C., recalls wrestling with the resignation of one of her five agents several years ago. Young says the agent left after expressing anger that Young posted a comment on Facebook supporting gay marriage, which was illegal in North Carolina at the time.
“The agent told the owner of the company that if she ever ran into a problem, she didn’t think I would have her back because we didn’t share the same views,” Young recalls. The owner did not reprimand Young over the situation, and Young says she doesn’t regret her Facebook post. But she did learn a lesson about how her words can have a greater impact because of her higher position in her company. “I realized I’m the broker in charge, and I represent the entire company. It wasn’t just me losing something; the whole office lost a good agent,” she says.
Some real estate pros simply aren’t sweating the risky consequences of working in a combative political climate. One Louisiana practitioner who participated in the focus groups noted that the business impact can accrue to his benefit if certain colleagues become known for their vitriol online or in person: “One of their clients is going to come over to me.”