How Companies Can Speak Up Smartly on Social Issues
Most corporate employees favor inclusion & oppose discrimination — but execs worry about Republican retribution
For many American workers, the past month has been marked by tragedies and loss, from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade to the recent spate of mass shootings. As some employees cope with grief and others are mobilized to action, companies and CEOs are struggling with how to reconcile their workers’ desire for inclusion and activism with the business consequences of political retribution.
In the decade that I spent on Google’s public policy team, we grappled frequently with whether and how the company should speak up on social issues. Whether the issue was gay rights, immigration, racial justice, or President Trump’s Muslim ban, most Google employees favored an inclusive approach to social issues.
But with Republican elected officials occupying important positions of power at the federal and state level, there is always a risk — and sometimes a reality — that any company’s activism could stir up political and regulatory punishment.
How we got here
The time when most employees expected their employer to remain solely focused on profits is long over. A 2021 Gartner survey of 3,000 workers found that three-quarters of employees expected their companies to take a stance on hot-button societal or cultural issues — and a recent Perceptyx survey found that younger employees particularly care.
Of course, companies’ strategies vary widely. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is a vocal champion of progressive causes, while Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong declared last year that his company would avoid any stances on social issues.
Think of most companies muddling their way somewhere on this “Salesforce-to-Coinbase Spectrum.” For example, many consumer-facing companies have a history of weighing in, while lesser-known enterprise companies are more likely to keep their heads down.
Corporate employees today also look and think differently than thirty years ago. Compared to the American population overall, most Fortune 100 employees tend to cluster in cities and inner-ring suburbs; are college graduates; embrace diversity and immigration; support equality on gender, sexuality, and sexual identity matters; and are traditional Western liberals. Brookings found that Biden-backing counties in 2020 were responsible for 71% of America’s economic activity.
Given what Bill Bishop called “The Big Sort” of like-minded geographic clustering, most big corporate cultures reflect these norms. And as work occupies a larger part of people’s identities, more employees have sought out companies that engage in social justice issues. With a tight job market for top corporate talent, corporate leaders dismiss employee concerns at their companies’ peril.
Then there are a company’s customers; embracing diversity is just good for business. Big companies are trying to serve everyone, including consumers who were overlooked in the past.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 was also a pivotal moment. Companies that had rarely spoken up before on social justice felt compelled to not only speak, but commit to meaningful action.
On top of all this — as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently noted — a defining feature of our political moment is that conservatives dominate most positions of elected political power — but lack cultural influence and control. Meanwhile, progressives dominate the media, cultural, and corporate leadership — but lack political power. Each party’s pursuit of the power it lacks drives our politics.
So when progressives looked at Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, they felt hopeless to change the political power dynamic in the Florida state legislature (where Democrats are a minority) — but instead used their cultural influence to prod Disney to oppose the bill.
And then, because DeSantis wanted to discourage “woke companies” from speaking up, Republicans used their political power to respond. “Free speech for all corporations” — the basis of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision — is a waning principle in Republican politics.
Despite all these currents, every CEO in the country saw DeSantis’ punishment of Disney and wants to avoid that kind of targeting. Businesses want to be inclusive, but don’t want to be punished for it.
Playbook for navigating speaking up
So how can business leaders promote diversity, combat discrimination, and inspire employees without becoming a target of political retribution?
Here’s a guide.
First, CEOs should accept that politics is now as much a part of their job as products, employees, and finances. Unprecedented societal events like the January 6th insurrection, Floyd’s murder, school shootings, and the Roe v. Wade ruling will only increase workers’ expectation that their companies take some kind of action in the face of historic societal upheaval. There’s a growing feeling among younger employees in particular that inaction complicitly supports injustice.
Second, actions beat advocacy. Companies are at their best when they respond to political upheaval with example-setting action — rather than merely calling on policymakers to act. Big tech companies have the most generous paid parental leave of any industry — setting a trend that smaller companies have followed. Uber and Lyft cover legal expenses incurred by drivers transporting people to abortions in states with new abortion restrictions. Countless companies have adjusted their energy consumption strategies to meet self-imposed climate change goals. These steps set an example — and force progressive advances faster than legislative change. And companies should make sure their actions are consistent with their leaders’ statements, as Salesforce recently found out regarding guns.
Third, advocacy has more power and safety in groups. Most CEOs aren’t lining up to follow Benioff’s example; they prefer the comfort of speaking up as part of a group of companies. For years, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has successfully and strategically organized group statements by companies standing against anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Other advocacy groups should follow HRC’s example — and company leaders should build coalitions of peer CEOs to join them in speaking up.
Fourth, pick the battles where speaking up will have the most impact. Corporate America’s unified stance against their anti-trans “bathroom bill” led North Carolina leaders to partially reverse the bill. That worked in a purple state like North Carolina — which wants to attract corporations — but would face long odds in a solid red Southern state. Similarly, since Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion rights have become an agenda item in state legislatures, corporate America will have the most influence in purple states like Virginia. Conversely, the low likelihood of the U.S. Senate abandoning the filibuster might discourage companies from supporting such a move. Some companies have set a rule of only engaging on social issues in states where they have an employee presence.
Finally, be prepared to litigate to protect your corporate voice for inclusion. Though companies fear that speaking up against discrimination could earn the kind of political singling out Disney received from DeSantis, there’s good reason to think that that punishment violates the Constitution.
The Atlantic’s David French recently noted a 1996 Supreme Court case in which a city’s mayor blocked from city contracts a towing company whose owner refused the mayor’s donation request. The court’s 7–2 ruling against the mayor set the precedent “that the government cannot use its awesome power of contracting, employment, permitting, and taxation to reward political and ideological friends and punish political and ideological enemies.”
A company that finds itself hobbled by Republican policymakers over its stance for inclusion may ultimately need to sue the government under these principles to deter future such punishment. Though most companies are loath to bring a lawsuit against a sitting elected official, I’ll bring the popcorn to watch that trial.
Today, big companies are one of the most important and effective forces in U.S. society promoting diversity and social inclusion. I want to see companies continue promoting societal progress — not just profits. But I hope they use their voices and influence in a smart and savvy way.
The Chamber of Progress (progresschamber.org) is a new center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future. We work to ensure that all Americans benefit from technological leaps, and that the tech industry operates responsibly and fairly.
Our work is supported by our corporate partners, but our partners do not sit on our board of directors and do not have a vote on or veto over our positions. We do not speak for individual partner companies and remain true to our stated principles even when our partners disagree.