Lecturer Thomas A. Cole, '75, Discusses When Companies Should Take a Public Position

Business and Politics: When Should Companies Take a Public Position?

Those of us who lived through the 1960s hear a loud echo of those turbulent times in the challenges of the current decade.

The ‘60s were a time of war and protests, assassinations, racial discrimination, and the fight for civil rights and against environmental pollution. The decade began and ended with recessions. Many of our current challenges are, unfortunately, the same—with some new complexities, such as gun violence, the climate crisis, and (of course) the pandemic. On top of that, social media and a far more polarized political discourse have heightened emotions and detracted from the quality of debate.

Another difference between the ‘60s and today is the greater prominence and power of corporations, with businesses now viewed as more competent and ethical than both governments and the media. Employees and consumers are paying more attention to corporations’ policies and practices when deciding where to work and what to buy. And corporate social responsibility is broadly accepted as a legitimate pursuit of public companies, at least so long as there is a reasonable nexus to long-term shareholder value.

All of this raises several questions in the minds of those who think about corporate governance: What does this sea change mean for organizational leaders in terms of addressing social issues, particularly political ones? And what are the best practices for companies considering taking a stand?

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