Bold Leadership: How Companies are Stepping Up and Speaking Out on Hot Button Issues

By Katy Moore, Managing Director of Corporate Strategy at Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

In today’s super-charged socio-political environment, it’s no longer enough for a company to demonstrate its commitment to community through traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices like philanthropy, volunteerism, and environmental efforts. Corporations are being pushed internally by employees and externally by consumers to stand up and speak out on some of society’s most controversial topics. One just has to look at some of the most recent examples of corporate activism by companies like Nike, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, and American, United, Frontier Airlines to realize that we’ve entered a new era of CSR.

Historically, companies only took a stand if an issue directly related to their industry or interfered with their profit-making abilities. Now, companies are regularly speaking up on controversial issues such as gun control, immigration, and racism, as well as important internal issues such as diversity, sexual harassment, and the gender pay gap. But, how does a company decide whether or not to take a stand? Who determines what that stance will be?

To answer these questions, Larry Di Rita, from Global Marketing and Corporate Affairs at Bank of America, and his team regularly ask the questions, “where should we take a stand given our role in the economy and the community?” And, “what are the issues that our employees and customers care about?” These internal conversations have led to a number of public stances on important issues, such as the bank’s recent decision to stop lending to companies that manufacture certain military-style firearms for civilian use. In situations like this one, the bank has to ask itself a series of questions, such as “how can we help make sure front-line bankers who handle these accounts engage in the right dialogue with their clients?”

Ultimately, Di Rita, explained that when the bank is deliberating on taking a stance, it needs to question two things. First, is the decision sustainable? That is, will the company be able to continue meaningful engagement with stakeholders in the pursuit of “responsible growth?”  And, second, is the decision consistent with the company’s values and purpose?

Another company taking a bold stance on a hot-button issue is PwC. Idalia Hill, director of external communications at PwC, is one of the leaders of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, the largest-ever collective of CEOs dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Responding to society’s complex divisions and tensions around race, diversity, and inclusion, CEO Action is the brainchild of Tim Ryan, U.S. Chairman and senior partner of PwC. Mr. Ryan originally called on what he expected to be 40-50 CEOs to sign the pledge. The coalition is now up to more than 500 companies and organizations as signatories – a prime illustration of the momentum of today’s corporate activism.

Jimmie Walton Paschall, executive vice president of Enterprise Diversity and Inclusion & Strategic Philanthropy at Wells Fargo, knows a thing or two about handling challenging situations and politically charged communications. Since 2016, when Timothy Sloan took over as Wells Fargo’s CEO following the bank’s missteps earlier that year, the bank has intentionally fostered a culture of transparency and ethical behavior that it hopes will inspire employees and resonate with customers.

So, recently, when Wells Fargo publicly stated its opposition to the Trump administration’s policies on DACA, the bank made sure to be clear with their employees and partners why the bank’s leadership felt that it was important for Wells Fargo to have an opinion. Specifically, hundreds of Wells Fargo team members are DACA recipients and the bank recognizes that many of its customers and community partners are also beneficiaries of the program.

Ms. Paschall also referenced a recent advertising campaign that was part of an intentional effort by the bank to reflect its vastly diverse customer base. In 2015, Wells Fargo ran a television ad that featured two women learning sign language on, what we learn later in the ad, is a journey towards the couple adopting a hearing impaired baby. According to CNN Money, this commercial made Wells Fargo the first American bank to showcase an LGBT relationship in a national ad campaign. In addition to highlighting diversity, the ad was supposed to impress the importance of financially planning for your family’s future and whatever life may bring your way. But a number of religious groups expressed outrage that the ad featured a same-sex couple.

When faced with the decision to pull the ad or continue it, Wells Fargo’s leadership decided that continuing to run the ad, despite conservative religious protests and the possible loss of banking relationships, aligned with the company’s culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Feedback and input from the bank’s employee resource groups helped the bank truly understand how its employees – at every level and in every geographic area of the country – felt about these issues and supported the bank’s decision to keep the ad.

As companies across the U.S. are deciding when and how to take a stand, or not, many are also encouraging and empowering their employees, customers, social media followers, and even their competitors to join in their activist efforts. This type of bold, corporate activism has the power to make a real difference in society. It also has the power to transform traditional quid-pro-quo relationships – such as seller/consumer and employer/employee – into life-long brand loyalties. When companies genuinely stand up for a cause they care about and authentically engage stakeholders, they make a difference and might even convert socially minded consumers into customers along the way.

How is your company stepping up and speaking out? I’d love to hear from you!

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