Corporate America's New Political Voice

Time has shown us that corporations and their high profile executives usually remain neutral on political issues as it is in corporations' interest to represent all customers, no matter what their political affiliation is. Taking a stand on controversial issues might imply serious revenue loss for the company.

We have occasionally heard about how a company took a stance on a social issue such as LGBT rights or racial justice. For instance, more than 200 corporations signed on to a letter by the Human Rights Campaign opposing North Carolina's law limiting transgender rights. However, these are historically notable exceptions with a limited scope.

I think there is a difference between opposing a limited and local state regulation, and opposing a federal immigration policy that represents a newly elect president's view and agenda for the country, as we have seen many notable companies do in the past few days.

This trend has radically shifted since President Trump's order which bars people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Corporate America is increasingly becoming a voice of political advocacy. Fortune 500 companies, representing diverse industries, have denounced President Trump's immigration order or have taken proactive measures against it. It seems that business leaders have decided that staying quiet could have a bigger impact on their reputation and bottom line than speaking out.

How exactly are business leaders demonstrating their opposition? Some are denouncing the measure by taking actions aligned with their business. For instance, Ikea plans to roll out a new range of rugs and textiles made by Syrian refugees in 2019, Starbucks announced that it would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years at its outlets across the globe while Airbnb offered free housing to anyone left stranded by the recent executive order on immigration.

In other cases, companies are denouncing the immigration measures by highlighting how these go against the company values and purpose. For instance, Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, denounced the order, characterizing it as a "threat" to the company's values. Even on Wall Street, where more than any other industry, companies have historically remained silent about political issues, executives were very vocal. For instance, Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein became the first major Wall Street leader to speak out: "This is not a policy we support."

Many companies have expressed support for their affected employees, including Microsoft, which is "actively working to provide legal advice and assistance" to its employees from listed countries, pointing out that all of them were in the US legally.

Finally, a number of CEOs have shared their own immigration stories, linking personal backgrounds with business and immigration. That has been particularly common in the tech industry, where many executives are foreign born or from immigrant families. For instance, Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, expressed his views in an open letter to the Reddit community describing himself not only as the son of an undocumented German immigrant, but also "the great grandson of refugees who fled the Armenian Genocide." He added "without them, there's no me, and there's no Reddit. We are Americans. Let's not forget that we've thrived as a nation because we've been a beacon for the courageous--the tired, the poor, the tempest-tossed."

Finally, it's hard to talk about Corporate America and politics without mentioning the Super Bowl advertisements. From Budweiser to Coca-Coca to 84 Lumber, my TV was screaming the words "inclusion", "diversity" and "acceptance".

While corporations used to stay out of public political debate, today the situation is different. The line between corporate social responsibility and political activism has been blurred and we are witnessing a historic and powerful changing role of business in society. This will have interesting consequences for the intersection between business and politics in the months and years to come as the very definition of corporate social responsibility is changing. Perhaps in the near future corporations will dedicate a page on their citizenship/sustainability webpage to "corporate political responsibility"? Stay tuned.