‘We can’t be silent’: how does business know when to get political?

In an increasingly polarised world, businesses are being drawn into debates over topics from abortion rights to immigration. But, as the bosses of Lego, Deloitte and Henry Schein point out, finding the right balance is difficult
Disney employees staged a protest over then-CEO Bob Chapek's response to Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill, in March 2022
Disney employees staged a protest over then-CEO Bob Chapek’s response to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, in March 2022

Business leaders are often reminded of the importance of being authentic and to wear their values on their sleeves, but with political conversations becoming increasingly contentious, CEOs are split on whether it’s wise to wade into divisive discussions.

According to Deloitte’s global CEO Joe Ucuzoglu, there’s “no topic that corporate leaders are spending more time on than this”. Speaking at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos – the theme of which is “cooperation in a fragmented world” – he claims boardrooms are continually questioning whether their companies have gone far enough, or too far, when engaging in political debates.

In recent years, businesses have become increasingly vocal on societal issues. Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, major corporations, including Netflix, Nike and Warner Media showed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the ruling on Roe v Wade caused a number of companies to take a stance, with many choosing to provide travel and expenses to help staff in affected states access reproductive care.

But in an increasingly polarised world, speaking out on big issues comes with its own risks. Last year, hardware store Wickes received backlash in some sections of the media after photos of its Brighton Pride float, which stated “No LGB without the T”, circulated online. 

You don’t want to have CEOs that have an opinion about everything

Disney also got dragged into the culture wars after its employees staged a walkout over the company’s slow response to Florida’s ‘don’t say gay bill’, which is designed to restrict discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in the state’s schools.

The Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who considered removing Disney’s special status over its stance on LGBTQ+ issues, has continued to rail against what he deems to be “woke” corporations. He recently pulled $2bn in state Treasury Funds from Blackrock because of its focus on ESG investing. Meanwhile, Twitter CEO Elon Musk has suggested that the ‘S’ in ESG stands for “satanic”. 

Even Mars’s decision to release a limited run of its M&M’s sweets, which promoted female empowerment on the packaging, has been deemed controversial by some.

“You’ve seen large cross sections of the corporate world speak out on big issues and make statements about the values their company stands for,” Ucuzoglu adds. “Now, you’re seeing some backlash towards companies that have gone too far. Nobody’s got this completely figured out.”

CEOs don’t need to have an opinion on everything

Lego CEO Niels Christiansen, who was also speaking on the WEF panel, believes that although it’s important for businesses to take a stance on certain issues, they should only when it relates to an issues where they have an active stake. 

“You don’t want to have CEOs that have an opinion about everything,” he says. “I need to be very careful that I don’t mix up my personal political beliefs with the stance we have as a company.”

The Danish toy maker holds a brand board meeting that decides which topics the business should have a perspective on or ones where it is important for the brand to have a position. According to Christiansen, these are typically issues impacting children, such as its decision to remove gender stereotypes from its products. The company has also sought to promote inclusion through the production of LGBTQ+ themed sets.

Business founders should “pick a few areas close to the purpose of their company to really focus on”, he adds, warning that feeling the need to have an opinion on “all things in society” could have consequences for the success of the business.

It’s not reasonable to expect that companies can become the arbiter of every divisive societal issue

However, Stanley Bergman, chairman of the board and CEO of US medical supplies distributor Henry Schein, disagrees. He believes that there are some big issues about which “business can’t be silent”. 

“There are certain items where society crosses the line and where I think business has the responsibility to speak up,” he says.

While Henry Schein is involved in a number of initiatives aimed at improving access to healthcare, Bergman has also spoken out on a range of political points, including immigration, diversity and globalisation, as well as denouncing the anti-Asian hate crimes that have surged in the US in recent years. 

“There are obvious areas, hate crimes being one example, where I cannot see how an ethical CEO can avoid that discussion,” Bergman says. “You’ve got to weigh in.”

Dealing with politics in the office

Political division is also impacting the workplace. According to Edelman’s latest Business Trust Barometer only 20% of people would be willing to work alongside someone who disagreed with their point of view.

But enforcing neutrality can be equally problematic. In 2021, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried placed a ban on “societal and political discussions” in the workplace. Staff responded with a mass exodus.

Meta has also attempted to restrict employee conversations around certain political topics on its workplace communication platforms. The tech company told employees to refrain from discussing abortion in the wake of Roe v Wade due to what it described as the “divisive” nature of the topic.

Rather than stifling political debate, Ucuzoglu believes it’s “really important that companies continue to be willing to speak out”. However, he adds: “It’s also not reasonable to expect that companies can become the arbiter of every divisive societal issue… A business is going to lose trust if it comes out and is viewed as politicised and wading in on the most contentious issues that divide communities.”

Changing consumer and employee expectations mean that business leaders are being drawn into political debates more frequently. Finding the right balance remains key but knowing where the line should be drawn is becoming more difficult in an increasingly polarised world.