Executive View: The Perils of Political Persuasion

By Dana Wilkie May 4, 2022
Executive View: The Perils of Political Persuasion

​As a company executive, weighing in publicly on social, cultural or political issues—whether they involve gender identity, sexual orientation or Mideast conflicts—can come with great risk.

If you were leading Ben & Jerry's ice cream company, for instance, you might be called on the carpet for no longer selling your ice cream in occupied West Bank territories.
 
And if you were heading up Disney, you might be hammered from all sides for first taking no position on and then denouncing a Florida law that restricts classroom instruction through third grade on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Such are the landmines underfoot whenever a big-name company is confronted with what to say—or not say—about divisive issues in the public arena.
 
Disney's initial reticence to comment on the Florida law evoked fury from the theme park's workers, some of whom protested and walked off the job. When Disney then denounced the law, it came under fire from those on the right, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who derided "Woke Disney" and then signed into law a bill revoking Walt Disney World's special district status. That status essentially allows Disney to self-govern an area of roughly 25,000 acres where Walt Disney World resort sits and grants the company relief from certain taxes, fees and building permit requirements.
 
As a recent New York Times op-ed points out: "In trying to offend no one, Disney had seemingly lost everyone." 

Harsh words for a brand-name company that promises magic and fun for everyone.

Taking a Stand Means Taking a Risk 

About this time last year, a group of Black business executives called on corporate leaders to speak out against efforts to restrict voting access, following the enactment of a Georgia law that critics claimed would disproportionally hurt voters of color. 
 
"Corporations have to stand up. There is no middle ground," said former American Express CEO Ken Chenault, who was one of the first Black chief executives at a Fortune 500 company.

"Standing up" on social or political issues isn't new in the corporate world. But historically, executives have been reluctant to do so: Taking a stand means taking a risk—one that can affect your brand, your reputation and your bottom line.

But with younger generations demanding that their employers weigh in on matters workers care about, pressure is increasing employers to take sides on a myriad of topics, including LGBTQ issues, labor practices, racism and environmental footprints. 

Sixty-three percent of Americans believe CEOs "have a responsibility to take a stand" on societal issues, according to a poll of 3,000 people conducted by the nonprofit research firm JUST Capital. 
 
Seventy-eight percent of U.S. employees said they expect their company to "act on societal issues" including vaccine hesitancy and climate change, according to the Trust Barometer from global communications company Edelman.

People are feeling more emboldened today in pressuring companies to advance issues they care about, like fair pay and anti-racism, said Jennifer Tonti, JUST Capital's managing director of survey research and insights.  
 
"If corporate leadership doesn't step up to the plate, the public will," she said. 

The D
anger of Overstepping

Yet some warn against executives overstepping. Leaders might be slammed for picking sides on an issue solely to quiet clamor, or because they want to appear "woke" so they can score points with the public.
 
"I've been in corporate America for 35 years. It's all about making money," said Di Ann Sanchez, SHRM-SCP, an HR consultant in Hurst, Texas, who was quoted last July in an All Things Work article published by the Society for Human Resource Management. "I don't know that they're doing it out of benevolence." 
 
When Ben & Jerry's announced it would stop selling its ice cream in occupied West Bank territories because doing so "wasn't consistent with their values," one executive put the company's decision under a microscope.
 
"Each and every issue a company takes a stand on—and for most companies, that should be an exceptionally short list—needs to be first viewed in a vacuum," wrote Richard Levick, chairman and CEO of LEVICK, in an article on chiefexecutive.net. "How does this issue impact us as a singularity? 
 
"Why did Ben & Jerry's publicly announce its pull out of the occupied territory? Companies make expansion and contraction decisions all the time. Why did they want to make this so public? Rather than the change-agent activity we have come to expect from Ben & Jerry's, it feels more like virtue signaling." 

Younger Workers' 'BS Detector' Is High

The bottom line appears to be this: Pick your battles carefully. And make sure you go into battle with sincere intentions. 

Mark Beal, an assistant professor of professional practice and communication at Rutgers University, told All Things Work that 86 percent of those from Generation Z say they will conduct research on a company or brand to ensure the business is being "purposeful" in its actions. 

That's important, because members of Generation Z—those born between 1997 and 2012—make up 20 percent of the U.S. population, and 48 percent of its members identify as other than white. Some of them may have only just joined the workforce, but they will eventually have great influence when it comes to the intersection of business and politics. 
 
"Their BS detector is pretty high," said Rachel Ruttan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the University of Toronto.



Dana Wilkie is the managing editor of the SHRM Executive Network. She is in charge of the EN: Brief and Managing Smart newsletters. For a complete list of articles, visit Dana's SHRM author page.

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