As American society has grown more divided, that rift has seeped into corporate culture. Businesses today are scrutinized for their political positions as much as for their goods and services. This climate forces a delicate dance for many boardrooms and business leaders: their statements or silence on key social issues can impact employee morale, retention, and productivity.
As complex topics like racial equality, women’s rights, and conflicts in Israel and Ukraine dominate public discourse, workers want to know where their employers stand on the issues. business.com polled over 1,000 workers and contacted 70 business leaders to explore how to balance employee expectations with high-stakes corporate responsibility.
When the Supreme Court granted corporations expanded political speech rights, it gave American businesses greater power while burdening them with more responsibility. Once companies were free to influence elections, customers and workers wanted to know where they stood on mainstream issues.
Taking clear stances on controversial issues can be difficult for image-conscious companies. Still, many have been up to the challenge. Two-thirds of Americans report that their employers have staked out a position on major social issues over the past three years.
Some prominent social issues allow relatively uncomplicated corporate responses. When George Floyd’s death inspired a widespread social justice movement, American businesses invested more than $340 billion in racial equity commitments.
More complex decisions arise when divisive issues can compel corporate support on opposite sides. With reproductive rights under review, some companies have restricted employees’ health plan choices while others pledge to help workers access healthcare. Similarly, many companies have issued public statements regarding the Israel-Hamas war, and many have been cataloged by researchers from Yale.
According to workers, these are the social issues their employers have most frequently addressed over the past three years:
Have the companies you’ve worked for in the last three years taken a stance or made a statement on these specific social issues?
|My employer took a stance (internally or publicly)
|My employer made public comments
|My employer made a financial contribution to help the issue
|Racism and racially-motivated hate crimes
|Gun policies or mass shootings
|One or more of the above
Less controversial issues receive more robust corporate attention. As LGBTQ+ rights have gained wider public acceptance, corporations have been more willing to support them.
Environmental issues have compelled the most public statements and financial contributions over the past three years. This development is likely attributable to several factors. Promoting a cleaner planet is a message with broad support. Additionally, green initiatives align with many companies’ business models. These policies can also boost marketing appeal as well as stock performance.
While many companies have addressed pressing social issues internally, less than half have made public statements. How does this level of activism sit with employees?
Michael Jordan once explained that he avoided public political stances because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” His light-hearted response highlighted the pitfalls of corporate activism in a capitalist economy.
Many businesses would like to follow Jordan’s example and avoid social issues. Unfortunately, neutrality is rarely an option in today’s fiery cultural climate. In addition to media scrutiny and consumer boycotts, employees exert pressure for activism from within.
Our research found that three-fourths of American workers want their companies to take clear stances on prominent social issues. We also discovered how corporate political positions directly impact employee loyalty, morale, respect for leadership, and workforce recruiting and retention.
Some business leaders believe the risk of backlash is too significant to justify controversial corporate stances. However, many insist that companies become stronger when they practice authentic activism on well-chosen issues in collaboration with their employees.
That’s a tricky tightrope to walk given the divisive issues currently facing society, but one that two-thirds of employers are bravely attempting.
In November 2023, business.com researchers conducted an internet-based poll of 1,005 American workers. Seventy-seven percent were full-time employees, and 23 percent were part-time employees. Seventy-seven percent of respondents were white, 8 percent were Black, 7 percent were Asian, and 8 percent were of another ethnicity. The median respondent age was 38. Fifty percent were women, 49 percent were men, and one percent were of another gender.
Our research methodology included sourcing written responses from 67 business leaders through a reputable online platform designed for journalistic inquiries. These responses were obtained by posting an open-ended question about how executives and leaders make decisions regarding responding to social issues, ensuring a diverse range of insights. We conducted a thorough text analysis of the submissions to categorize and interpret the answers effectively.