About the author: Alison Taylor is the executive director at Ethical Systems and an adjunct professor at the New York University Stern School of business. She was previously a managing director at non-profit business network Business for Social Responsibility and a senior managing director at Control Risks.
America is in the throes of a cultural and political autoimmune disorder. Just a few days ago, corporate executives were fretting about becoming the next Disney. Now, with the end of Roe v. Wade set to dominate the midterms, the pressure on business has escalated another several notches.
How did we get here? Beginning with the North Carolina transgender bathroom bill in 2014, a longstanding rhetorical commitment by business to stay out of politics (“Republicans buy sneakers, too”) has dissolved. During the Trump presidency, corporations weighing in on social issues like immigration, gun control and climate change became the norm. It’s not hard to see why. Survey after survey shows that the public wants companies to speak up and use their voice on social issues, and that business is more trusted than government. Young employees seek workplaces aligned with their values, and these pressures aren’t set to disappear anytime soon. Companies are merely doing what they are built to do: respond to market forces.
Abortion is uniquely divisive, but precedents have been set, and doing nothing is not an option. It is only weeks since American corporations stampeded out of Russia, citing ethical imperatives and often taking big financial hits in the process. When faced with human rights violations closer to home, they can hardly shrug and say it isn’t their problem. So, what should they do? There are three options: protect employees, manage political risk, and speak up. Let’s look at them in turn.
The most constructive response to the end of Roe is to plan substantive action to protect the rights of the women who work at your company. This is certainly in line with what the clear majority of Americans want. If you have made any commitment to support diversity and inclusion, meet the Sustainable Development Goals, or commit to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, there isn’t an alternative. Even if you haven’t made these commitments, support for reproductive health will be essential to attracting and retaining women over the long term. In a country where healthcare is tied to employment, this means providing employees with affordable contraception, and support to travel out of state for abortions if needed. Companies including Yelp, Citigroup, and Apple had already committed to doing this; Amazon made the same pledge after the Roe news broke. Many corporations are likely to follow. It may also be a good moment to consider whether those low-tax red states are the best place to set up a new office, and review your parental leave policy.
If it wasn’t already clear in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the other urgent priority is a strategic review of political spending. The longstanding status quo has been donations across the spectrum to protect corporate self interest, often via arms-length trade associations or to political action committees. But we are in a new era, where supportive statements on Instagram are no longer a feelgood distraction. They are an invitation for employees and activists to look under the hood and see whether your spending matches your words. This means you can’t both make an internal commitment to women’s reproductive rights, and continue to support candidates that do the opposite. IBM’s longstanding policy of not making donations at all is looking increasingly smart and thoughtful as the 2020s progress. Of course, companies are reluctant to give up lobbying altogether, but given how mired we are in political stalemates and policy reversals, it is no longer clear that the benefits of wielding influence outweigh the potential for escalating backlash.
Finally, let’s look at where most companies begin, with speaking up. Much media commentary over the past few days has focused on who has made public statements, to the exclusion of more substantive action. Because of obsessive social-media monitoring and a tendency to punt social activism questions to corporate affairs teams, “taking a stand” is still the knee-jerk reaction to the latest controversy. A recent survey of PR professionals found that while 85% agree the level of polarization in America is a problem, 43% believe that “if your company’s corporate activism doesn’t make someone mad, it’s not worth doing.” The truth is that a spin-heavy net zero plan won’t solve climate change, and coffee won’t cure systemic racism. But you sure wouldn’t know it from today’s corporate PR.
If nothing else, the Roe v. Wade leak shows that cynically stoking the culture wars for short term brand advantage is ultimately a pyrrhic victory. Internally, stakeholder capitalism rhetoric has unleashed armies of purpose warriors who know that if their demands aren’t met, strategic leaking offers a powerful form of leverage. Externally, touting your “purpose” can stoke domestic and international political risk. We are already at the stage where you can’t please both Chinese and Western consumers. And reputationally, hypocrisy allegations are a best case scenario. Greenwashing lawsuits are just getting going, while conservative politicians gear up to punish environmental, social, and governance investment efforts.
Business is just the latest institution to be sucked into our self-destructive polarization spiral, but needs to realize that no one wins a culture war, and it cannot provide solutions in the absence of a functioning political system. This is not to say that corporations should stay silent on controversial issues, but they should firmly resist pressure to speak out before understanding their options for action, and should reflect on whether their statements are ultimately going to help. Before even thinking about taking a stand, it is essential to align your core values statements, employee protections, and political spending. This necessitates much closer relationships between HR, sustainability, government and public affairs, and a far more strategic approach to your values.
That is foundational, strategic work, and it isn’t easy. Only once it is complete should you consider whether you can deliver a nuanced message that accurately reflects your actions and emphasizes our common humanity, without furthering conflict and misunderstanding that harms the people you seek to help. If not, this might be the perfect moment to shut up.
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