An Election Year Dilemma for CEOs

With the Labor Day kickoff approaching, CEOs will need to avoid any public nods toward Trump or Biden. But broader social issues are a different story.

The US presidential race—which officially kicks off this weekend—will only intensify between now and Election Day. But in 2020, it’s not just the candidates people want to hear from.

No matter whether their firms make shoes, sell software, or do anything else, CEOs are under increasing pressure to explain where they stand on climate change, racial justice, gender equality, and nearly every other key issue. But instead of winning a citizen’s vote, corporate leaders are trying to live up to the often-competing expectations of employees, customers, and shareholders, all while sounding authentic and nonpartisan. "The level of visibility and volatility for a CEO is tenfold what it was," says Jane Stevenson, vice chair of Korn Ferry's Board & CEO Services practice.

Historically, of course, CEOs stayed away from social causes because their activism could negatively impact the business. Now, going silent can harm the bottom line. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of customers responding to a recent global survey said a brand’s position on important issues matters to them when making purchasing decisions. Still, "it takes a high degree of sophistication, awareness, and political savvy to craft the right message," says Nels Olson, vice chairman and coleader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice and global leader of the firm’s Government Affairs practice.

That’s especially true during this election cycle, where divisions run deep. CEOs do not want their companies—or themselves—to draw the ire of millions of social media users. “In today’s hyperbolic and tension-filled environment, CEO messages are amplified and weighed with even greater scrutiny,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director for Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise. “Words matter, and so does context.”

Ironically, the one place where people aren’t demanding that CEOs take a stand: the election itself. Data from one study shows that 92% of employees expect their CEOs to comment on a variety of social issues, from income inequality to climate change. Politics, however, wasn’t on the list of issues. “CEOs are not expected to weigh in politically and need to be careful when they comment on national or global politics and elections,” says Beth Fowler, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry Global Government Affairs practice.

It’s worth noting that while institutional investors like BlackRock and organizations such as the Business Roundtable made social impact a priority along with shareholder returns, they have made no mention of politics or party affiliation in their mandates. The implication, of course, is a CEO’s political beliefs are a personal matter. And yet any position taken on a social issue can impact the organization’s employees, customers, shareholders, and communities. It’s a difficult needle to thread, with CEOs needing to be authentic and transparent without being offensive or partisan. Or, as Olson says, “CEOs need to embody empathetic leadership to navigate some tricky waters.”