Over the past few years, individual CEOs have weighed in on contentious topics such as gun control, climate change, and race. But the debate about who gets to vote when has pushed US corporate bosses into uncharted territory: taking a public stand on something so political that they will land in hot water, no matter what they say or don’t say.
Indeed, experts say the voting rights debate may mark the end of CEOs just letting the nation’s politics play themselves out. It isn’t just about the legislation that recently passed in Georgia, either; 40 states have taken up legislation around access to voting, while a huge piece of federal legislation on the subject likely will be debated over the coming months. In all, it’s yet one more barrier that corporate leaders, nudged, in part, by the purpose movement, may need to break. “Business was kind of neutral, and now the social issues are not allowing neutrality,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice. “It’s a new age.”
To some degree, this push has been building for some time—and where it ends is hard to know. It wasn’t that long ago that corporate leaders were expected to keep their thoughts to themselves when it came to hot-button social issues. “Taking a public stand has not necessarily been within their normal operating purview—it carries risk,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director of Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise. If CEOs took a public stand on something, it was on a subject that had broad consensus from the American populace: condemning foreign terrorism, for instance.
But experts say in today’s climate, CEOs are often more trusted than other public figures and are expected to participate in the US political discourse. While CEOs occasionally made public statements on various issues, including healthcare and human rights, the tipping point, say some analysts, was the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests about how the police treat people of color. Organizations big and small raced to deliver statements to employees and the general public supporting the rights of Black people, committing resources to train and develop more Black talent. In the last few months alone, CEOs have weighed in on the storming of the US Capitol, coronavirus vaccine distribution, immigration, US-China relations, and an assortment of issues.
But experts say the subject of voting access takes all this to a new level. On the surface, no private company is in the business of buying or selling democracy. But customers and, importantly, employees are demanding that bosses make their voices heard on the issue—either way. “It’s existential. If you want the best employees and customers, you better pay attention to this,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global diversity and inclusion strategist.
Still, to many, wading into any of these thorny issues seems like a no-win situation. No matter what the boss says, or doesn’t say, someone will believe it was the wrong decision. “You’re alienating someone,” says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources. It’s critical for bosses to pick their spots and scenario plan. “You can’t speak on everything; it’s exhausting, and you have to run a business,” Tapia says. That process starts with answering a key question: What are the core issues to the company that you will speak about, no matter what? The answer will be different for each firm. It’s better to talk about principles—a commitment to racial justice, for instance—rather than specific issues, because no one knows what topics will present themselves.
After that, CEOs need to consider the viewpoints of all stakeholders. They need to map out the downside and upside of saying or doing something, or nothing at all, Marshall says. The risks can be anything from a consumer boycott to employees quitting, or even angry politicians trying to raise taxes on the company because they didn’t like what the CEO said.