Taking a Stance, Facing a Backlash

A new survey shows stress levels for legal- and government affairs executives are up sharply, as firms try to straddle the fence on many public issues.

They were important social issues, and the leader wanted to take a stance on them. But he couldn’t: some employees would be alienated, politicians would likely retaliate, and social media would eat him alive. He dialed back corporate positioning to a more neutral position.

After several years of adopting stances on many political and social issues they used to avoid—and now facing a backlash—leaders say they are at a crossroads. To take stances or not? Certainly, one group is at a breaking point trying to defend such positions: According to a new survey from The Conference Board, 78% find navigating the current political climate to be “extremely” or “very” difficult, up from 47% in 2021. “The stakes can be extremely high,” says Selena Loh LaCroix , a senior client partner and vice chair of the Global Technology Practice at Korn Ferry. “Firms can face backlashes or can be put in the limelight in a way that’s not positive.”

Pre-pandemic, the executive suite was placing more and more importance on communicating employee-purpose movements in company positioning. Many employees rallied around issues such as climate and diversity, and many companies formally followed suit—only to pay a price. Some employees grew alienated; social media erupted in firestorms; and unwanted government attention ensued.

Now, legal- and government-affairs leaders are at a critical juncture—as indicated by the fact that many boards won’t even use the term “ESG” in committee titles, for fear of sowing strife. High stress levels are evident in the survey: nearly half of legal- and government-affairs executives said that they expect the political landscape to become even more challenging over the next three years. They point to polarization of employees and customers, anti-corporate laws and rhetoric, and abuse of government power. Balancing this with employee sentiment is difficult. “Chief legal officers are having a very challenging time advising executives or boards on how to participate—or not—in this very fluid political environment,” says LaCroix.

Leaders with a long-term outlook are responding by pulling chief executives back from the strong positions they’ve taken—with mixed success. “It’s trying to bull ride, and hold the chief executive officer back,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry. Department heads, many of whom oversee politically polarized staffs, are sick of the dramas created by corporate positioning. Some executives are doing everything in their power to reroute corporate positioning to more neutral grounds.

As a rule of thumb, experts say, executives can’t go wrong by sticking to the organization’s core values and extending them into corporate positions. “It’s when you start to move beyond those that that you might begin to enter political waters,” says LaCroix.

Thoughtful, long-term positions focused on the best interests of the company are also essential, and crafting them may require significantly more time and sensitivity to nuance than in prior years. “Otherwise they can bite you,” says Nels Olson, vice chairman and co-leader of the Board and CEO Services practice at Korn Ferry, and global leader in its government affairs practice. It’s not worth it to risk losing the talent war, he says, or to risk a public backlash or political dustup that may last for years to come.


For more information, contact Korn Ferry’s Legal practice.